Tutorials » Spitfire Audio » Performing with the Strings

In this blog I'll be taking a look at some higher-level tips for recent Spitfire releases (Mural in particular). Hopefully there's some things in here that may prove new or useful to you!

String Legato & Sustains

Strings are some of the most expressive instruments in the orchestra, especially when it comes to phrasing and dynamics, and there are many ways that a string section can attack or release a note. Lets have a look at what Mural (and the upcoming Sable update) can do in more detail:

Hard attacks

Spitfire instruments, by default, were designed to provide a crescendo attack when playing a sustain (or legato) note. The long articulations build slowly and take roughly a second or so to reach their full dynamic, giving you a swell that's great for beginning chords or melodies.

Sometimes, though, you need a bit of bite to your attack. A traditional method to achieve this with samples has been to overlay spiccato or staccato notes onto the beginnings of longs, but these can give mixed results. Since the introduction of the BML range, the legato and sustain string articulations in Spitfire instruments contain an alternative hard attack that is controlled via note velocity. Take a listen to the comparison between two notes below:

The second of each note contains the hard attack, trigger by playing the sustain with a high velocity (in this instance, all the way up at 127). In the Spitfire BML instrument range (and in future planned updates) these hard attacks are not simply overlaid short notes. They're actual recordings of a much stronger attack. For Sable Volume 1+3 owners, we'll also be adding an extra 'Marcato attack' to the sustain articulation in the upcoming update that provides an emphasised attack for the f dynamics and above. These are also based on separate recordings made especially for volume 3.

Soft attacks

BML Mural (and the upcoming Sable 1.2 update) provides two ways to end a Sustain, Flautando, CS or Sul Pont note. The first is a traditional abrupt stop. This is the sound of the players instantly stopping the note with only the decay of the sound being heard in the hall. The second is a soft release. This is a much smoother transition from full-dynamics to silence via a decrescendo.

To select which type of release you want to use, Mural provides a Release slider on the Advanced Configuration panel (click to access it). The slider can be in one of two modes, off or on. When you depress a key with this slider set to off, releases are abrupt and quick. When releasing with it set to on, they're slow and smooth. Here's a comparison of the sound difference between each one:

Soft releases are great for playing chord progressions or 'pad' style phrases. The Release slider is controllable via CC17 in your DAW, though as with all controls this can be customised to your desired CC #.

LEgato in the BML Series

or those unfamiliar with the meaning in regards to sampled instruments (it's different to the musical term), legato intervals are the bits in-between  the sustains. As a string section moves from one note to another, a lot of complicated things are happening that would be missed if we simply played one sustain followed by another. To recreate these subtle effects in a sampled orchestra, developers record the transitions between each and every note and build them into a Legato (or True legato, or real legato) patch.

Things have progressed quite a lot since the legato technique was developed by some clever chaps a few years back. It's no longer just 'sustains and intervals', with some advanced stuff going on under the hood by many recent developers. Lets take a look at some of the functionality contained within Spitfire instruments:

Slurs, Bows and Portamento

There are many ways to transition strings between two notes, and developers have taken different approaches at providing this kind of functionality in their instruments. The approach taken by Spitfire is to provide the composer with a polished set of the building blocks that can be used to create a range of playing styles, rather than a big collection of predefined sounds aimed at specific musical situations.

The BML Sable (and upcoming BML Mural Volume 2) provide the composer with three core ways to transition between notes. Slurred  (fingered) intervals provide the musicians simply fingering to the next note. Bowed  intervals allow you to recreate the section changing bow direction between notes and Portamento intervals provide a smooth glide between them. To provide the composer with a simple way to pick which one should occur between notes, Spitfire instruments utilise the velocity component of overlapping notes:

  • A velocity between 1 and 19 triggers a portamento interval.
  • A velocity between 20 and 79 triggers a slurred interval.
  • A velocity between 80 and 127 triggers a bowed interval.

All three are available to you at any time when composing and with this combination of interval types, it's possible to build some very complex phrasing on melody lines. Have a listen below to the difference between each:

You can hear the difference between each, and the ability to mix and match them in the same melody or passage gives a huge amount of flexibility when composing. You can also hear the the speed slider (explained in detail below) gives you control over how much a bowed interval bites, or how quickly a portamento interval is over.

Speed Control. What does it do?

These intervals tend to be recorded at a specific tempo for particular styles of playing. However, sometimes you may want to cut into the interval to play an agile melody a little bit more nimbly; other times you may want to pull back and emphasise a sweeping, slurred line. To control this, Spitfire instruments provide a Speed slider on the front panel of Legato instruments.

While it's doing some crazy things under the bonnet, the essence of the speed knob is to 'chop off' a varying amount of the interval. It's important to use the right speed for the right phrase you're trying to create. Here's a quick demonstation of Mural, first with the speed set to 100% and then with it set to 0%:

As you can hear, there is a considerable difference in sound when the slider is at 0 and 100%. Sometimes you may want to play a particular interval at full speed, while others you may want to pull it all the way down. I'd recommend automating this to suit the phrase you're trying to create. The speed slider is controllable via CC16 in your DAW, though as with all controls this can be customised to your desired CC #.

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