There is not doubt strings form a very important part in almost anything you might want to do in an orchestral piece. They can deliver soaring lines, doubled in octaves, play rhythmic accents, provide background textures ranging from fragile harmonics to a brooding tremolo and, last but not least, they are capable of a huge array of special effects. That’s quite a bit. It is no wonder strings have been very well represented in the sampling world from day one, so to speak. When looking at what the market has to offer, we may group the available libraries into two factions: „All but the kitchen sink“ and „special intentions“. The first group of libraries has everything you might wish for. Special articulations, con sordino, harmonics, runs, trills – you name it. The downside of having such a high number of articulations and bells and whistles usually is a large number of patches, making it hard to harness the sheer power. The other group is focused on special purposes, like a specific sound, or to provide mainly runs or other effects. These usually score with their ease of use and are perfect tools for what they are intended for.
One library category I find most interesting is what I call a „workhorse library“. Such a library should provide basic articulations for the kind of tasks a composer encounters all day long. There are quite a few of these in the string world, the most famous probably being AudioBro L.A. Scoring Strings with a host of features, divisi and lots of other goodies. And then, there is L.A.S.S Lite, with a single microphone position, no divisi, but the real L.A.S.S. sound. What, to me, was missing up to now is a big symphonic library suitable for laying out tracks live, accessible without complicated programming, yet powerful enough to really be the foundation of a track. But there’s a new kid on the block – or rather a kid that has been living here for quite some time, sometimes without even being noticed. This is the all-new Cinematic Strings 2.0 Kontakt Player-powered library – let’s see how it performs!
Cinematic Strings wants to be a „realistic mockup tool, and an inspiring instrument – which will save you from all the hassle and wasted time spent tweaking parameters, modifying CC data, or applying drastic EQ and reverb effects“, says the website. This perfectly fits my „workhorse library“ idea: Lay down tracks for mockups in real time with no need of spending ages tweaking CCs. A bold statement – and one most libraries put on their packaging. But indeed Cinematic Strings has a pretty unique approach to organizing the content of the library: After installing and registering the library in the Native Instruments Service Center or in the Kontakt 5 Player, you end up with a single instruments folder containing exactly five (f-i-v-e) patches, one per section. There are no multis and no single-articulation patches, just one patch each for 1st Violins, 2nd Violins, Violas, Cellos and Basses. We will look at the included articulations in greater detail later on. There are three mic positions (close, stage and room) as well as a pre-mixed position which is great for saving memory. Having just one patch per instrument makes a great UI an absolute must for the library and I have to say I was absolutely stunned by the beauty and functionality of the UI.
The interface is the same for all sections, as are all the features. Let us have a look at the 1st Violins. Upon loading a patch, you are greeted with a beautifully clean tabbed interface. The „Matrix“ tab is displayed by default, which houses a list of the available articulations. You can deactivate any articulations you do not need and they will be unloaded from memory. Creating your own patches for individual articulations is as easy as unloading everything but the one articulation you want to have and saving the patch under a new name. Switching between articulations is done via keyswitches for all loaded articulations. Neat thing: When you unload an articulation, its keyswitch will vanish from Kontakt’s virtual keyboard. This is very handy for seeing at a quick glance which keyswitches are actually in use. Shift-Clicking on any of the keyswitches allows you to reassign it with a list of current assignments displayed:
Cinematic Strings offers a monophonic legato mode with recorded legato transitions between notes. If you want to play chords, you need to deactivate this mode with the legato switch (assigned to A0 by default). The Live mode inserts „imperfect“ samples while you play, making the performance sound more natural. Players are slightly out of tune or miss a beat and things like that. Of course you can deactivate this if you wish. The matrix tab also hosts a knob for selecting the playing position (for sustained samples) or the note length (for short notes). On the staccato articulation, this dial lets you make the staccatos even shorter (staccatissimo). The playing position dial is a great way to shape your sound: The string a note is played on really makes a big difference in terms of sound! Finally you have a dial for the included reverb.
The left side of the interface hosts the volume sliders for the individual microphone positions. You can load and unload additional positions or solo a single position. There are panning controls and of course you can adjust the individual volume of each position.
In the Advanced tab of the GUI you can adjust sustain and release lengths for all short articulations (staccato, staccatissimo and pizzicato) individually with dedicated sliders. This makes it possible to program custom patches for specific purposes, like a very short staccatissimo patch with very quick release for lightning-fast playing without the sound becoming muddy. The Advanced page also lets you switch on or off the Staccato overlay (while playing sustain, higher velocities trigger a staccato sample – more about that later), the vibrato control as well as toggling on or off the use of release samples. Last but not least, you can assign CCs to Velocity and Vibrato Crossfade here as well as control the intensity of the live mode (how much „wrong“ playing is inserted in your performance).
As far as VI GUIs go, to me Cinematic Strings is the best I have ever seen. The clean and concise layout of the interface makes accessing all features a breeze and really sets this library apart!
Having just five patches, CS heavily relies on scripting and keyswitches to get the job done. Just as it is with the general UI, the patches are all used in exactly the same way. So before finally looking at how the library sounds in the next section, will now deal with how you get Cinematic Strings to play what you want.
You choose between different articulations via keyswitches, with some of the articulations having what may be called „sub-articulations“, supplementing the actual articulation. Here’s what you get:
Arco: By default this is set to play monophonic legato, but you can deactivate the legato mode to play polyphonic, resulting in (to my ear) a loss of presence and character in the sound. For any monophonic lines you should activate the legato mode. The arco mode has a special feature that once was very popular with sampled instruments: Staccato overlay. If activated, higher keyboard velocities will trigger a staccato sample when playing any note. This is extremely useful for playing lines with mostly legato notes, but also some shorter notes. General playing velocity is controlled by the modwheel (assignable, if you wish so), so you can adjust the general velocity with the modwheel and play staccato samples as needed simply by pressing down the keys on your MIDI keyboard a bit harder. It works beautifully and when I tried it out I really wondered why hardly anyone else is doing this, too. As shown before, there are keyswitches for the live mode, legato, staccato overlay and release samples. There is no controller defined by default for the playing position dial, but you can assign a CC via MIDI automation. To me, the greatest feature of the arco articulation is the controllable vibrato. Assigned to CC2 (breath controller) by default, this lets you set the strength of the vibrato by morphing through a number of layers. Neat thing: The library actually only loads the layers when you need them, saving resources.
Tremolo, Half Trill and Whole Trill do exactly what it says on the packaging. Again sampled with four dynamic layers, as is the case with all articulations, they morph through these layers with the modwheel. You cannot choose a playing position for these, but live mode and even legato transitions work great! Having real legato for these articulations to me is a big plus for realism.
On the „shorts“ side, you have Staccato, Marcato and Pizzicato. The Staccato articulation lets you play staccatissimo by moving a dial and, as mentioned before, you can adjust the attack and release of those samples in the Advanced tab. Velocity if controlled by key velocity here. Last, there is the Run mode articulation, intended for playing very fast string runs. In this mode, notes connect together very well when playing fast, so most of the time you can get away with it for runs quite well.
Using a combination of keyswitches the modwheel/key velocity and a few CCs, for example for vibrato control, it is possible to play almost anything in real time. All patches work in exactly the same way, so you do not need to learn different controls. When loading a patch, it takes quite a while for Kontakt to find all the samples. But there is a very easy fix for this: Just “batch resave” the library once and subsequent loading will be instantaneous. This, by the way, works with about every library on the market. Memory consumption is about 470 MB per section with all articulations of the Mix microphone position loaded. That means loading all patches at once will use about 2.2 GB of RAM, which is pretty good considering what you get. If you load a patch more than once (for example the arco articulation with legato switched on in one Kontakt slot and with legato switched off in another) the two patches share the sample pool.
There sadly are no harmonics or con sordino samples. Cinematic Strings also does not have divisi capabilities.
Now the interesting stuff you have been waiting for: the sound. Cinematic Strings really sounds cinematic, just as it says on the box (of course there is no box, but you know what I mean). Here are some short demos. As usual in my reviews, this is 100% live — no editing, no extra effects apart from some compression. Just the pure sound of the library. For polished demos and whole pieces check out the demos on the official page. The composition of the pieces alone is worth a listen.
Our first example is a short Violin I arco phrase. Legato is switched on, as is the live mode. CS’s own reverb is used, no third party processing whatsoever. The legato line is followed by a short tremolo phrase. Note that the dynamics react very strongly to any movement of the modwheel – a tad too strongly for my taste.
The second violins have graciously agreed to play a short run for us in the next example. This is a dedicated articulation which plays note transitions between notes. It works quite well, but obviously real recorded runs sound still better. The staccato articulation has a nice bite to it. I chose a short rhythmic pattern with some dynamic variation. Again everything out of the box, the ambience you hear is in the samples, though if you want to you can use the very dry close mics.
Here is a single long note played senza vibrato with the vibrato gradually being introduced. The rate of the vibrato is fully controllable via a MIDI CC. At the end of the mp3, there is a short line played with varying amount of vibrato.
The Viola section demonstrates the huge different in sound the legato mode makes. The same line is first played with the legato switch set to „on“, then a second time with it set to „off“. The MIDI data itself is absolutely identical, the difference in sound really only comes from the absence of legato samples the second time.
Finally, the Cellos prove their versatility with a short staccato phrase, followed by some pizzicatos. I liked the pizzicatos very much. They cut through the mix, but still sound very much like the real thing without being overly bright or harsh.
The sound of Cinematic Strings 2.0 is superb. The cellos in particular have a very nice bite and work in all possible situations. The one thing that really drives this library home is the ease of use. One patch per section, all articulations and controls immediately accessible. The interface is a joy to look at and makes every function very clear. If I really wanted to find any downside to Cinematic Strings, it would be its limited set of articulations. You really only get the essential stuff: No con sordino, no divisi; but then the direct contenders (mainly LASS Lite) do not have divisi, either.
In practical use it boils down to this: If you need (another) great sounding string ensemble library with a great sound and put ease of use over having tons of articulations, then this one is for you. If you have everything you could want in term of strings, I still think you might benefit from having the „Cinematic Strings sound“ as you go-to package for quick mockups and sketches. For divisi and con sordino you will need to look elsewhere, but for all the basic stuff, CS will serve you extremely well. Unless you specifically need special articulations in your score, there is nothing at all in the sound that would make you want to replace your CS-powered lines anywhere in the process. As a string workhorse library, Cinematic Strings is for me the best you can get when looking at both sound and usability.