Ryan McCambridge delves into this feature-packed brassy addition to the company’s acclaimed British Modular Library...
You can’t help but be drawn in by Spitfire Audio’s compelling image. It’s dark and dour with brooding imagery of yesteryears. There’s a story there, and you as the creator are here to tell it. At least that’s how I felt when I first came across it.
But being inspired by the façade alone wouldn’t help much without substance. For me, the substance of a sound library is founded in realism and it being able to provide a palette of textures to express yourself. I didn’t know what to expect sonically from Spitfire Audio’s British Modular Library, or Bone Phalanx in particular, but the visual pretense certainly motivated me to delve further.
Bone Phalanx is a 9.6GB library of “six of the world’s greatest trombone players” – three tenor, two bass and one contrabass trombones – recorded at the Lyndhurst Hall of AIR Studios in London. This is the second trombone title from Spitfire’s British Modular Library, helping to round out its already comprehensive collection of orchestral instruments. The process of downloading and installing the library was uneventful, in a good way. You’ll need Native Instruments’ Kontakt to run any of Spitfire’s BML instruments, which might turn some people off, but for those who are willing to invest, BML pays back in dividends.
Brass instruments are difficult to successfully recreate. I think that their subtleties are often overshadowed by their capacity to be forceful, so emulations can very easily fall into that ‘synthesised brass’ sound that we’ve all endured at some point. The stereotype of brass recreations is nowhere to be found in Bone Phalanx though. Spitfire has taken into account the nuances of the trombone as an instrument and the result is a wide palette that I’m hearing for the first time here in Bones Phalanx. It can be sonically assertive without being overpowering, or subdued without being washed out.
From a functional standpoint, this very much stems from controllability and a well thought out user interface. The GUI starts with the Overview Panel of necessary functions like dynamics, tightness and expression, but for those who are willing to dig a bit deeper the GUI can change to include more parameters. The General Controls Panel adds mic mixing as well as controls relating to the samples you want loaded and how they’ll behave.
The number of samples needed to account for all the different mics, articulations and parameter variations is staggering, so it’s no surprise that Bone Phalanx is quite resource heavy. That said, Spitfire has gone to great lengths to mitigate memory requirements by allowing the user to turn off the elements that they’re not using. For example, if you weren’t using marcato notes in your current score you could simply turn them off to free up valuable memory. The same thing applies to the number of round robins you’d like to include. Consulting Kontakt’s memory meter shows that the results of any changes are nearly instantaneous. The last of the three GUI panels is The Ostinatum, a laboratory for developing elaborate patterns and further generating inspiration.
I am not a composer or an orchestrator but as a producer and mixing engineer I’ve worked with a lot of sample libraries and I am well acquainted with the huge variance in their actual realism. I’ve found that most libraries are passable at a distance and will often work fine for popular genres, but as you get up close you start to see the cracks. This is most apparent under the magnification of mixing, the moment that requires everything to gel. The texture of each instrument takes on clarity and the level of authenticity that is revealed is largely dependent on the breadth and meticulousness of the library. It was for this reason that I asked if Spitfire Audio would be generous enough to provide me with its BML Murals string library as well, so I could get a sense of context. I wanted to see how Spitfire’s BML catalogue blended together and whether it worked in the modular way that they claimed.
The idea of a modular library is fantastic and Spitfire’s commitment to using AIR Studios, which is debatably the most distinguished studio for orchestral recording, is an example of their dedication to making incredible libraries. It became obvious to me very early on that Spitfire Audio’s British Modular Library is unashamed of being exposed under the mixing microscope and the achievement of Bones Phalanx is a testament to that.
Best of British
It took me a bit of reading and research to fully appreciate what Spitfire has done with its British Modular Library. It’s long-term thinking. It’s working towards giving users the freedom to build and expand their palette as necessary. Given the amount of detail that Spitfire has placed into each of its releases, it’s obvious that they want to take their time to focus on each instrument. Spitfire’s BML is about specificity. There is care and empathy towards the unique characteristics of each instrument, which is hugely important to creating realism. Besides the parameters dedicated to each instrument this approach also extends to the library as a whole.
The most obvious example is that all of Spitfire’s British Modular Library has the musicians sitting in situ, putting musicians in their correct physical space in the stereo field. Bone Phalanx is even positioned around the original BML Bones Vol.1 placements, which again is also positioned within the orchestra at large. Panning at the mix stage can never quite replicate placements of this nature authentically so the British Modular Library benefits from an added sense of dimension because of it.
If that weren’t enough, you are submersed into the sound of AIR Studios, which is so captivating and wonderfully inspiring. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of familiarity there, as though this was how a score is supposed to sound. I suspect that we’ve all heard our fair share of scores recorded in Lyndhurst Hall. This is most apparent in the decca tree mics and the ambient mics, both of which really showcase the room, and when blended together seem to really fill out the space. The additional close mics and outriggers clearly further the sense of dimension but the balance between all the mics will largely depend on the direction of the music being played.
Finding faults with the British Modular Library is difficult. The only real qualm that I could see some people having is the data size of the library. Though Bone Phalanx is only 9.6GB, if you are extending yourself into other Spitfire BML titles that number climbs very quickly. But that’s the cost of this level of detail and given how inexpensive hard drives are these days I would hope that this wouldn’t be a reason for passing over this incredible library. The only other thing that I would point out is the benefit to studying Spitfire’s buying guides and product explanations. Despite the imagery that I so love, I found the product descriptions to be a bit arcane on the surface. By no means does this affect the products themselves but I found that I had to dig to really uncover what each product was, and how they fit into the overall library. I feel that some impatient onlookers might not give the library the time it deserves, which is unfortunate.
I suppose it’s safe to say that the mark of a great orchestral library is one that has the capacity to conjure a cohesive sound that is a reflection of an actual orchestra. The better the library, the less effort that’s needed to achieve realism. Bone Phalanx sounds incredible from the very first note but its depth still rewards those with an attention to detail. It can carry the load for the novice composer, however, understanding the capacity of the instrument and the nuances of the different articulations really pays off. This truism extends to the rest of the BML as well. Even still, you get out exponentially what you put in. Having heard much of Spitfire’s British Modular Library, including its new Mural – Symphonic Strings Vol. 3, I can say that it is the library that comes closest to achieving the captivating realism that we strive for in virtual instruments like this. For me, there is no better muse.
- 9.6GB library of “six of the world’s? greatest trombone players”
- 17,810 samples in total
- Requires Native Instruments Kontakt to run
- Available with standard and extended? arrays of microphone mixes
- Utilises Spitfire’s trademark easy-to-use GUI
Ryan McCambridge is a producer and programmer from Toronto, Canada. He has taught audio production in workshops and universities, is the creator of the production blog Bit Crushing and is also the frontman of A Calmer Collision.