Review: Spitfire Audio’s New Evolutions: Angular String, Fragile String & Woodwind

by

Spitfire gives us three new specialist orchestral sample libraries that set new heights for evolving string and woodwind textures. It is cutting edge, inspiring and just so much damn fun!

Jump to the Videos of Theory of Evolutions by Spitfire Audio

Jump to the Demos of Theory of Evolutions by Spitfire Audio

 

Review: Spitfire Audio’s New Evolutions: Angular String, Fragile String & Woodwind

Spitfire Audio will be a familiar name to many music creators. In the past ten years they have become one the dominant forces in the competitive world of sample libraries. However, you do not rise to the very upper echelons in this field by just making amazing recordings and putting them in a pretty interface. The leading companies have also been innovators and succeeded in giving composers inspiring new tools with modern takes on traditional instruments.

Within the orchestral niche, arguably no such innovation has been quite so well received as the Spitfire Evolutions. A few years ago the co-founder of Spitfire Audio, Christian Henson, came up with a unique method of making very long, simple string lines immeasurably more complex and evocative. The basic concept is to gather an ensemble of players and have them play unusual articulations in a great room that changes either subtly or more extremely over a long period of time. In the majority of cases they start relatively simple and gradually evolve into something very different. Imagine, for example, a straight sul tasto that progressively adds increasing pitch fluctuations until the sound becomes a cacophonous wash of dissonant tones. Once you then place these looped recordings in an interface which enables the user to assign different Evolutions to different notes, the textural combinations expand exponentially.

This concept has been rolled out in a number of Spitfire products (from symphonic strings to string quartets) using Native Instrument’s Kontakt as the host sampler. With the limited release of Theory Of Evolutions (all three libraries bundled together – now sold separately) it reaches a pinnacle, as Spitfire present three libraries inside three brand new unique interfaces.

Interface

Angular String Evolutions, Fragile String Evolutions & Woodwind Evolutions sells for $299 each from Spitfire Audio

Thoughts

Angular String Evolutions, Fragile String Evolutions and Woodwind Evolutions are the latest releases in Spitfire Audio‘s own VST engine. They are reborn from previous releases, but entirely updated within a new bespoke plugin and a host of carefully curated presets from Spitfire Audio’s Head Of Product, Stanley Gabriel. The previous versions required the full version of Kontakt so moving them to the free Spitfire interface is a real money saver if you do not own Kontakt, as the products are entirely self-contained.

As all three libraries share some similar features I will cover the common elements, before going on to look in more detail at each particular library. The content for all libraries was recorded in what Spitfire somewhat achingly refer to in hipster speak as a ‘vintage craft acoustic’. What this really translates to is the relatively dry, but lively acoustic setting of Air Edel Studios. They tracked via vintage classic mics and preamps to good old tape. The strings are chamber sized with a 4,3,3,3,1 configuration, whilst the woodwinds get divided up into two sections (more of that later). As is typical of Spitfire, they have employed some of the greatest, progressive players in the UK and world class engineering, resulting in extremely beautiful recordings.

Installation is via the Spitfire application which also installs a plugin, enabling each library to have a bespoke interface. Using the app also means updates automatically appear to fix any bugs or to add new content.

Installation through the Spitfire Audio App

The top tier of sample developers using their own samplers is nothing new, but it does seem more and more companies are moving this way. It is probably due to a combination of factors – not wanting to be reliant on a third party product, as an opportunity to offer features that Kontakt cannot handle and also to strengthen brand identity. Spitfire’s move in this direction has been the topic of hot conversation on certain forums, with some users less eager to leave Kontakt behind, but at least for the Evolutions I can safely say it has hugely improved all aspects of these three libraries. With regard to reliability I have yet to encounter any issues and all the samples load very swiftly.

The first thing that immediately hit me is the super crisp resolution and the fact that it is entirely resizable. The graphic design is also top notch – interesting but not distracting artwork and all the various controls clearly laid out with plenty of space. I know the sound is the key thing, but it just looks fantastic and gives you the feeling you are working with a refined and high end product before you even press a key!

The top menu bar details various computer resource amounts, voices, midi channel, tune, pan, and volume with a pulldown for velocity and cc mapping.

It also gives access to the settings page where further customisation of the plugin can take place, such as buffer size etc. I should mention now that by default the Help Text is on and it is so comprehensive many users will be able to learn these libraries without consulting the manual.

Settings

The preset tab is accessed via a pulldown which reveals an overlaying window. There are a number of brand new presets included, which doubles the original content.

Presets Selection

The user can search by keywords and by mousing over the little information ‘i’ a further window pops up describing the preset. As if that was not enough each preset even comes with it’s own mini audio preview which is just perfect for quickly auditioning sounds and your favourites can then be starred to easily find them another time. There is the ability to save your own presets within the user category. I have not yet come across a more intuitive or fully featured preset browser and the presets themselves are quite varied and sound wonderful straight out of the box.

The main controls reflect the minimalist aesthetic of the GUI design and features just three key components. There are sliders for Expression and Dynamics and a dial that defaults to control Reverb.

Main Controls

Clicking the centre of the dial brings up the other parameters that the main dial can control – Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release and Tape Saturation. In use, this is slightly clumsy and slow to implement, though a less fiddly volume envelope is included in the Signal Mixer section and saturation in the FX section.

A double arrow symbol in the top right of the plugin enables you to collapse the interface to just the presets and main controls. However, when it comes to digging into details you need it full size, which brings us neatly to the Evo Grid.

Evo Grid

This is the beating heart of the Evolution engine and the layout, colour coding and usability is drastically improved when compared to the old Kontakt version. The grid is scrollable and consists of Evolutions on the vertical axis and note pitch across the horizontal plane. This is way more intuitive than the old grid that had the notes up the side, which always felt a bit odd to me seeing as we are so used to viewing notes left to right. This peg board design draws directly from the vintage EMS VCS3 ‘The Putney’ synthesiser. It should be noted that the 48 Evolutions are grouped into certain categories that share a similar playing style, named things such as Episodic or Extreme (I will touch upon the library specific groups more below). The playing range spans about 5 octaves and as such not every note can get it’s own Evolution, as this would make the grid pretty impractical to use and be tiresome to manually programme. Instead the pitches are sensibly divided into 12 note groups and the one you are currently playing is clearly highlighted within the grid.

To assign a particular Evolution to a key it is simply a matter of clicking the corresponding circle. Control-clicking an Evolution will lock it to all pitches, but the real magic happens when you have a different sound on different keys. Set up like this and playing a chord then creates a continually varying and complex orchestral texture – very exciting!

To the left of the grid are controls to randomise the virtual pegs and this can be done across all 48 Evolutions (click Feeling Lucky?), to the currently visible grid, or restricted to particular groupings.Restricting to Evolution types works especially well to focus the sound, but also retains an element of randomness. Should you like what you find but want it to be just a little different the Walk button will move all the pegs just one step up or down to create a variation on the theme. This is where all three libraries come to life, as they inspire you to play a certain way depending on what Evolution combination gets created.

That being said, for some compositions you might want a precise Evo for a particular note and this is where manually programming the grid comes into play. In the old Kontakt version this more considered approach was basically a real pain and felt like pot luck, as there was no easy way without playing through an entire Evolution to actually know what the sound might be and then by the time you tried a few others you forgot what the first one was! I found the only solution was to open the folder with the breakout version in it from within the Kontakt browser, which did have an articulation title, but this was far from ideal. So I was thrilled to discover that now by simply rolling over the grid there is a very detailed description of each of the 48 Evolutions, which makes it far less like a needle in a haystack situation when searching for a particular texture. I love this and it makes working with 48 different sounds so much quicker and easier.

Each individual Evolution also has controls for volume and panning. These simple controls should not be overlooked – the volume can be very helpful to balance naturally quieter or louder Evos and as the instruments are set up in a traditional stereo arrangement the pan can be useful if you need to bring things more central, or to more radically change the soundstage. Each articulation has an FX on/off switch which is on by default and should you want to edit them hitting the FX tab brings up detailed controls for Tape Sat, Delay and Reverb. Both tape saturation and reverb amounts can also be dialled in using the big knob in the main control section as described above.

Clicking the third tab brings you to the Signal Mixer page. Here we have all the mic options as familiar faders, which can be turned on and off to save RAM. I like the faders displaying % as opposed to the dB scale as it just makes more sense in this context, though that can be changed in the settings if you prefer.

Close is the cleanest and the main mic. Unlike some recent Spitfire releases it does not have the option for panning, but as this can be done on a per articulation basis I do not miss it really. It is tight, dry and pure that for many uses you may not want to move beyond. For more adventurous use there are 5 more options which can all be mixed to taste. Tweaked is a compressed and slightly glitchy version of the close mic. Ambient dials in a very atmospheric reverb that was most likely done in post-production rather than at source, as it sounds far bigger than Air Edel. Distort does just that and means you can go full dirt or blend in a little edge to taste. By flicking an arrow the two final hidden mic options are brought up.

Time-Stretch Mics

 

The first of these is the close mix stretched to twice the length giving a light and airy quality. The other mic is the close mix stretched eight times and it is pretty ambient and trippy. This is especially good for slowing down the more busy Evolutions where they then become something entirely new. Once you have a great mix you can save just the mic configuration for later use, which is a really handy feature. Currently there is no way to load saved mic setups between libraries, but hopefully, this might be added down the line.

To the right of the mic setup are simple ADSR controls and a Variation knob. Not much light is shed on the latter in the manual, but to my ears it seems to adjust the sample start, meaning you can get to the more gnarly evolved sounds a bit quicker (most of the Evos start quite straight before changing). I would love to see this implemented within the grid in a future update and to a more extreme amount, so it works per Evolution as opposed to only globally. A small lock icon enables you to lock the mic mix and ADSR settings to prevent accidental changes.

 

It is in this section that my only criticism of the GUI becomes apparent. I think it would have been better to have made all the mic faders viewable instead of having to tap along to them. You often forget they are actually there and that is a shame. This is easily accomplished if they could move the ADSR to the Main Control section where it is already duplicated for no obvious reason. Or just leave everything as is, but squeeze in the time stretch mics – there is plenty of room left in the GUI.

The final part of the GUI is the keyboard layout, which is helpfully colour coded to match the Evolution categories in the main grid.

That covers all the common features and I will now dig into each specific library.

Angular String Evolutions is a really great place to begin understanding the Evo concept. It has a number of Simple Evolutions that are quite boldly played and morph into extra vibrato and harmonics to add a subtle Evolution. The Scary samples use degrees of pitch bending – radical and gentle – and feature some interesting plucky textures to give a deep sense of peril. The Tense options rely less on pitch fluctuation and more so on introducing tremolo, trills and percussive techniques – more thriller tension than out and out horror. This library can be quite gentle, but can also be pushed to extremes, like in the Obtuse Distortion patch which uses plenty of the Distort and x8 mics to create a chaotic overdriven wall of sound.

Obtuse Distortion

 

By contrast, Fragile String Evolutions has an overall more intimate and detailed feel, even though it uses the same size of string ensemble. The Traditional Evos all start softly, sometimes with mutes, before progressing to beautifully nuanced wider and quicker vibrato or to a slight pulsing rhythm. The Episodic group employs quite sudden judders of sul pont, trills, tremolo and string bounces within a gently undulating long note. The Extreme Evolutions all start fairly unassuming, before morphing into a whole manner of pure chaos using ricochets, pulses, extreme pitch bends and radical overtones. The Tone Flickers preset is a good example of a particular strength of this library – edgy playing that occasionally pops out jolts of guttural string madness. Compared to Angular it can be more subtle and detailed at one end but more avant-garde at the other.

Tone Flickers

 

The final library in this bundle is Woodwind Evolutions. Here the Spitfire team divided up the band into 12 Reeds (oboe, cor anglais, bass clarinet, baritone sax and bassoons) and 12 Woods (various flutes and clarinets). The Light Woods begin gently and progress to trills, flutter tongues and much more. The Light Reeds use similar techniques, but due to the timbre of the instruments it sounds a bit more cutting and extreme. There are also categories for Pitch Wood and Pitch Reeds. They move through slight pitch fluctuation to controlled chaos and in some patches all the way to pure dissonance. I especially liked how on some of these you can hear the detail of the keys being rapidly pressed, which creates such a lovely intimate percussive texture. As well as randomising the four main categories you can also select combinations of them, for example selecting Woods will randomise with Pitch Woods and Light Woods. The Movement Pad preset is a standout here and shows how you can use more subtle Evolutions in the lower range and more radical pitchy patches in the upper octave to create a hugely evocative and ever changing pad that also has a solid foundation.

 

Movement Pad

Compared to the strings, the woodwinds seem to evolve quicker with less of a more static intro. This is most likely down to the limitations of the human lungs, but it might make them slightly less effective if you want only a very slight Evolution in your piece.

Spitfire Audio have really blown me away with these releases. The whole concept is pretty radical to start with, but to implement it so well shows true class. The playing and recording is top notch and drips with pure emotion and atmosphere. However, as an owner of several Evolution libraries within the Kontakt engine it is the new interface here that is just as exciting. Great samples only become great composer tools when the GUI matches the quality of the sounds and with Angular String, Fragile String and Woodwind Evolutions this has been well and truly achieved. The new Evolution and preset descriptions, large interface and clear layout make a very complex instrument easy and fun to use. Sure, there are little improvements to the GUI that could be made, but I am sure they will come in time with more customer feedback.

I found all three libraries equally as good and each suited to particular roles. They work excellently as humanistic texture layers amongst more regular orchestral sounds, yet also can provide pure inspiration in the creation stage and are strong enough to form the main part of a track too. As a recent tip video from Spitfire points out the beginnings of the string Evolutions especially can also be used to great effect in more traditional scoring to add a certain special sauce to the mix.

They will be useful to composers writing TV and film underscore and can also be utilised well for main titles, trailer music, adverts and computer games. Sound designers may find them as inspirational starting points for further manipulation and layering. Forward thinking artists, songwriters and producers will also be savvy not to see these as ‘jobbing composer’ tools as they can bring something very fresh to many commercial music genres.

Personally, I consider these libraries as amongst the best in my own very decent collection and my new ‘go to’ for a variety of composing and production tasks. Check out the comprehensive Spitfire walkthroughs below, which might help you decide if you will become part of this quite brilliant revolution of the Evolution.

Facts

All three libraries download and install within the Spitfire Application and include the samples and a bespoke plugin for each product.

Angular Strings Evolutions has 3,324 samples, 22 presets and 32.7 GB of content.
Fragile Strings Evolutions is 26.3 GB in size with 3,456 samples and 23 presets.
Woodwind Evolutions has 20 GB of content shared across 3,312 samples with 19 presets.

On Mac, an Intel Core 2 Duo running OS X 10.10 or later is required. PC requirements are an Intel Core Duo 2 or AMD Athlon 64 X2 on Window 7, 8 or 10.

Owners of the previous versions of these libraries get a free upgrade to the latest versions.

Angular String Evolutions, Fragile String Evolutions & Woodwind Evolutions sell for $299 each from Spitfire Audio

 

Videos of Angular String Evolutions, Fragile String Evolutions & Woodwind Evolutions by Spitfire Audio

Contributor Sam Burt reviews New Evolutions Trio by Spitfire Audio

Spitfire gives us three new specialist orchestral sample libraries that set new heights for evolving string and woodwind textures. It is cutting edge, inspiring and just so much damn fun!”