Until Audiobro’s LA Scoring Strings: First Chair (LASS First Chair) library first made an appearance a couple of years ago, Vienna Symphonic Library’s DVD Solo Strings library was pretty much the only serious solo string game in town. LASS First Chair was never originally intended to be for lead parts as such – as the name suggests, it’s the first chair in the full LASS ensemble and strictly speaking not lead at all. But it has nevertheless been adopted for this purpose by many composers – it was eventually launched as a standalone product; it has a good expressive range and it is very easy to play.
Now into the marketplace comes a completely new offering: Spitfire Audio Solo Strings. In contrast to LASS, which is relatively dry, Spitfire makes their space an integral part of the library, recording at the world renowned Air Studios in London. Perhaps even more significant, this is a rare beast among sample libraries – it features named players. This reflects Spitfire’s policy to support live musicians, and the three players will receive an ongoing royalty from sales of the product.
The two libraries aren’t like-for-like in terms of instruments. Unlike Solo Strings, LASS First Chair features a contrabass alongside the expect cello, viola and 1st violin. LASS First Chair also has two other violins – a bonus legato violin from the original test recordings, and a separate 2nd violin. This uses the same sample set as the main first violin, but uses a clever trick of employing adjacent samples and different EQ so they genuinely do sound different. Spitfire say that they will release an update to Solo Strings with a 2nd violin that uses similar techniques.
While Solo Strings has only three instruments vs six, we at least know the names of all three players – Andrew Haveron, Bruce White and Caroline Dale. Each CV is impeccable – Andrew, for example, is frequently guest lead at the London Symphony Orchestra and London Philharmonic, while Caroline’s broad credits range from the Royal Philharmonic to U2.
LASS stands for LA Scoring Strings, and the library was recorded on an unnamed LA scoring stage. It has a natural live feel, but although the stage has a 30 ft high ceiling, the net result sounds relatively small and subtle – it will typically require additional processing to put it in a bigger space. The plus side is that this makes it versatile – LASS is a great choice if you need a more intimate soundstage. It has only one microphone option.
Solo Strings has a totally different approach. It has three microphones available – close, Decca tree (stage) and ambient – and even the close mics are far wetter than LASS. There is an important caveat to the three microphone arrangement – the all-important legato patches are one microphone only, and Spitfire have said they have no plans to change this going forward – in their experience this single position sounds the most convincing with least unwanted side-effects. In fact, the legato is actually a combination of the tree and ambient mics.
One final and important distinction on the basics – while both libraries use Kontakt, only LASS First Chair is a fully-fledged Kontakt library, which comes bundled with the free Kontakt player. To use Spitfire Small Strings, you will need the full version of Kontakt 4 or above, it cannot be used with the free player. LASS First Chair is 16 bit (downconverted from 24bit, the original session was class A preamps straight to Nuendo bypassing the desk completely), and takes only a miraculous 1GB of install space. Solo Strings, with its three microphone positions and 24 bit (originally recorded at 96k through Prism converters), takes a still-SSD-friendly 5GB. Both use Native Instruments’ proprietary NCW lossless compression sample format, and both are download-only.
Both libraries are similarly priced from the companies’ own websites – depending on where you live when you buy it, VAT issues etc, each will set you back around $300.
Again, there are significant differences between the two libraries. LASS is commendable for its consistency across the instruments. All have legato with portamento option; Espressivo Sustain; Spiccato; Staccato; Pizzicato; Tremolos and Trills (maj and min). In addition, all but cellos and double bass have gliss – a much slower slide between notes than the portamento. The speed of the portamento itself can be adjusted via cc83. There are options for DFD streaming or RAM-only patches, with various features included or excluded to save RAM.
Solo Strings is still in its infancy, and Spitfire promise additional articulations to come which fill in some of the current gaps. As it is, for the shorts we have Spiccato, Staccato, Pizzicato, and Harmonics for the violin. The cello drops off the staccato, the viola drops off everything except spiccato. However, crucially (unlike LASS First Chair) there is a non-vibrato sustain option for all three instruments. There’s a purge feature on the multimic patches to save RAM on unused articulations.
What LASS calls regular “legato”, Spitfire calls “slurred legato”. What LASS calls “gliss”, Solo Strings doesn’t have. What LASS calls “portamento”, Spitfire calls “gliss”, though its speed is fixed. However, SSS has an extra trick up it’s sleeve – violin and cello both have “bowed legato” on the high key velocity, a sound created by a more aggressive re-bow – it doesn’t perhaps sound like legato at all as we usually think of it in the sample world, but it’s a very common bowing technique and a welcome addition to the cannon.
Controls, Bells and Whistles
Both libraries use the modwheel (cc1) to control the velocity of sustains and legato patches, and both use similar dead-easy methods to implement the legato transitions. Overlap a note when playing and it becomes a transition. With LASS the softest key press is gliss, next is portamento, hardest is regular legato (if you choose a patch with all three options). Similarly in Solo Strings, softest is gliss, next is slurred, hardest is bowed. Sadly, currently you can’t adjust these thresholds in Solo Strings, while everything is configurable in LASS – velocity curves, CCs, pretty much everything.
Solo Strings legato patches are almost bare (but beautiful) visually – a graphic representation of what your modwheel is up to, and a “hall size” control to try to tame the natural ambiance by reducing the releases (which doesn’t sound too convincing, in truth). With both of these you can reassign the midi controllers by right-clicking, though at the time of writing there is no way to stop the modwheel controlling velocity – Spitfire are looking into this. The only other thing to look at is the three musical score representations of the legato styles, which turn red when played.
Solo Strings has just two patches per instrument – the legato and the multi-mic (well, a third patch has just snuck itself in, more on that later). The multi-mic has all the articulations on keyswitches, and also the vibrato level is adjustable and can be assigned to a midi cc of choice. Currently, however, this isn’t a smooth increase of vibrato, rather it switches between the two articulations quite abruptly at the half way point. The transitions don’t sound harsh or clipped as such, they don’t always sound too musical either – natural transitions are smoother and slower than that. Spitfire have told us that the whole issue of controlling vibrato is still a work in progress.
Both have wizardry under the hood for patterns for your short artics. LASS has the A.R.T – a simple pattern generator activated by the sustain pedal, which works amazingly well on the famed LASS spiccatos in particular. Spitfire has its shiny new Ostinatum, which adds pitch information – it’s dead clever in that you determine the order of the notes of the chord you play – 1st finger, 4th finger, 2nd finger and so on. Great fun and pretty easy to use.
LASS First Chair also has multis and the auto-arranger – some amazing cleverness whereby you can play a chord and the scripting determines which instrument should be playing which note. It takes some getting used to, and tends to work best on slow passages.
Sound and Playability
You can compare the tone of the two libraries in the following audio demos. It’s one simple, short legato line played on each instrument in turn, which features all available legato transitions and a wide dyamnic range. With Solo Strings there are versions for the normal patches and the semi-official nv-v BPD ones (more on this below), for LASS First Chair versions with and without impulse response early reflections and tails (included with the library). Each example has had velocities and CCs adjusted to best suit the instrument. LASS comes with a default EQ switched on, and is enabled in these demos.
LA Scoring Strings: First Chair
Spitfire Solo Strings
Audiobro founder Andrew Keresztes goes to some extraordinary lengths to get consistency in his library and make it playable. LASS First Chair fits perfectly in its intended role within the wider LASS canon – the transitions all follow each other with incredible precision. Also, he’s got the dynamics absolutely spot on – the lowest velocity at the bottom of the modwheel is a little more subtle on the vibrato and it takes a little longer to ease in, and the higher up the wheel you go, the more vibrato you get alongside the volume. Although this isn’t the only natural way to play a violin, it’s a pretty damn good starting point for a dynamic that has good – if slightly conservative – emotional range. Nothing leaps out, there’s nothing overly dramatic but it’s not too tame either. It’s exceptionally well programmed and executed.
Spitfire is looser all round. This is – at least in part – by design, and part of the Spitfire philosophy to keep it real. For the most part it works – it’s a much warmer tone and there is generally more character here, and with the bowed legato there’s an extra layer you can build into a performance – that designed imperfection works really well. It’s also worth stressing that the general legato performance is excellent, and it’s a very challenging area in an ambient environment. The bowed legato can add a new level of expression into a passage.
However, there are a couple of problems too. First, there is the occasional bloom or drop in ambiance during some of the transitions – nothing too major, fortunately, just the occasional little glitch and likely to be ironed out in successive revisions, and usually easy enough to work around by – say – choosing an alternate transition. However there is another problem – there is no way to adjust the vibrato in the legato patches, and the lowest velocity still has a healthy load of it. There’s just no way to dial it back. It doesn’t take long before this can become wearing to listen to, a general over-emoting.
Fortunately, the Spitfire team have added some special BPD nv-v patches with controllable vibrato within a few weeks of the initial release. To quote the manual – BPD “stands for By Popular Demand, as means of a disclaimer” – in other words, these patches do have some rough edges. They won’t be fully supported in the regular way, so think of them as a bonus.
On the BPD patches, the vibrato fader (even though it’s effectively a 2-way switch) last seen on the multimic patches makes a welcome re-appearance, and can of course be assigned to a midi cc of choice. Be warned, however – learning to ride this and the mod wheel and getting a solid-sounding performance takes a little practice. For some reason the violin works least well on its patch, it’s quite tricky to get the transitions smooth, but the cello in particular can work very nicely indeed. With some perseverance, amazing performances are possible, but our demos also highlight the shortcomings.
Future Plans and Conclusions
These are two excellent products, and both have a bright future ahead of them. Although LASS First Chair won’t get the full treatment come the imminent 2.0 full library upgrade (no Stage and Color, the timbral impulse response engine), there will be new additions including legato tremolos, intelligent legato trills, updated microtuning and aleatoric patches along with updates to the CC scripts, Auto Arranger and A.R.T. Spitfire, meanwhile, promise a new recording session to pick up the missing viola articulations, giving the library greater consistency.
Audiobro’s Andrew Keresztes has really set the bar in terms of meticulous editing and scripting to achieve his vision of three unified divisi sections and a first chair – one shudders to imagine the sheer mind-numbing tedium involved in the editing man hours of the LASS project. It plays pretty much perfect out of the box, and users can adjust almost everything they’d ever need. The two drawbacks are that the tone won’t be to everyone’s liking, and if using as a solo instrument, the emotional range is good but hardly touches virtuoso levels (it’s not designed to, after all).
Spitfire Small Strings is a different and wilder beast. A few more rough edges can be either helpful quirks or irritants depending on the context, and you’ll need to look elsewhere if you need a dry sound. But the gorgeous tone and the passion – without relying on phrases or a myriad of keyswitches – are currently without equal in the VI world.
Right now, that kinda makes it a score draw. However, with significant updates in the works for both products, this may yet change.
Look out also for our upcoming SCOREcast review of VSL Solo Strings with an introduction to the VI Pro 2 sample player.