Spitfire Audio is back with the fifth rendition of their highly acclaimed Albion product line, this time focusing on the quiet end of the orchestra. In almost 28,000 samples and 57 GB of audio, Spitfire Audio tried to capture a fascinating, earthy and somewhat naked orchestral sound, that’s often related to Scandinavia’s iconic composers like Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki and Jan Sibelius. In addition to a full, 100 piece orchestra, the developers recorded and created a wide range of further compositional tools, partly deriving from the orchestral sessions, partly coming from all sorts of processed folk instruments.
I had the chance to try out Albion V Tundra and in this review, I’d like to share with you my impressions and thoughts on this truly one-of-a-kind instrument collection.
For the fifth volume of their Albion series – Albion V Tundra, Spitfire Audio set out to break new soil. Instead of going bigger and bolder, like some developers tend to do recently, they headed for the opposite direction, at least regarding the loudness and dynamic level. While still recording with a massive, 100 piece orchestra, including the whole range of strings, brass, woodwinds and even percussion, they wanted to focus on soft sounds. Restricting themselves to a dynamic range between mezzo piano (Engl. “moderately soft”) and the edge of absolute silence, Spitfire Audio’s goal was to pack as many layers of tonal and dynamic variation into it as possible.
Despite Spitfire Audio’s long-standing experience in recording orchestral material, capturing such fragile and faint dynamics presented their very own challenges. According to the developers themselves, getting the musicians louder than the ambient room tone in London’s AIR Lyndhurst Hall was quite a hard task they had to accomplish.
Following the conventions of the previous Albion volumes, Albion V Tundra is structured into multiple sections, namely:
- Albion V Orchestra
- Brunel Loops
- Darwin Percussion
- Stephensons Steam Band
- Vral Grid Evo
While the first section, the Albion V Orchestra, represents the heart and centerpiece of the product, the following departments feature processed and twisted sounds, that are created from the raw orchestral material. While Brunel Loops and Darwin percussion include organic rhythmic passages and hits suited to the overall soundscape, Stepensons Steam Band and Vral Grid Evo take human performances and turn them into otherworldly, floating drones and brooding pulses.
Like any other Spitfire Audio product, Albion V Tundra comes as a downloadable Kontakt instrument. In order to download and install the product, you need Spitfire Audio’s own content manager called “Spitfire Audio Library Manager”. After the download, the library manager automatically unzips, sorts and cleans up the according file folder. Keeping in mind that the total size of the library is almost 45 GB in size (57 GB after unzipping), the download will take quite a while, so you may want to schedule it for the night.
In Kontakt, all you have to do to get Albion V Tundra running, is installing it via the “Add libraries” tab and you’re good to go.
Anyone of you, who owns a more recent Spitfire Audio product, will already be familiar with Albion V’s interface – at least with the orchestral and percussion portion of the library. If you’re new to the interface, feel free to read one of my overviews featured in my Chamber Strings and Sacconi Quartet Reviews.
The Stephensons Steam Band and Brunel Loops patches, however, feature another type of interface, which may as well look familiar to some of you, since it’s based on the eDNA engine introduced by Spitfire Audio’s own hybrid synth eDNA Earth.
Since the look and possibilities of this interface can be quite intimidating, make sure to watch a very comprehensive rundown on it by Spitfire Audios’s co-owner and lead developer Christian Henson which you can find at the bottom of this review.
Another, third interface type is featured in Albion V Tundra – the one you see when loading up one of the Vral Grid Evo patches. As the name suggests, these type of patches are based on an engine, that was presented with the release of Spitfire Audio’s evolving “stringscapes” instrument Evo Grid 1.
Once again, Christian Henson explains the controls and usage of this eclectic instrument engine very well in one of his walkthrough videos for Albion V Tundra. Scroll down to the bottom of this review for the clip.
THE ALBION V ORCHESTRA
The Albion V Orchestra is comprised of 8 multi-articulation patches in total, namely:
- High Strings Main
- High Strings Soft and Wild
- Low Strings Main
- Low Strings Soft & Wild
- High Brass
- Low Brass
- High Woods
- Low Woods
Since I’ve gone over the usual controls and sliders of the Albion interface quite some times by now, I’ll focus more on the sounds and patches available.
Starting with the strings section, one important thing to notice, is that for Albion V, Spitfire Audio decided to drop the violas, meaning, there’s no violas on either the high and low strings patches. This decision was made to free up sonic space and to provide a “smiley frequency curve” (accented bass, reduced mids, accented highs) to the overall strings sound. To make up for the loss in players, the string recordings were realized with enhanced sections, namely 12 cellos and 6 basses on the low side as well as 20 first violins and 18 second violins on the high side. The strings were recorded “Antiphon”, meaning instead of performing in the conventional orchestral seating, the celli and basses were put in the middle, with two violin sections left and right on opposite sides of the hall.
Both, the high and low strings patches contain matching articulations (where possible), which all are rather unconventional – at least to my ears – never heard in another library.
The Flautando Con Sordino patches for example create a very soft and subdued sounds, resulting from the performance with mutes applied to the strings in addition to a playing style near the fingerboard of the instrument, which produces less overtones. This sound is also available in a short version over the entire string range.
Patches like the Frozen Strings and Gypsy Strings have a beautiful, icy quality to them, which makes them sound quite fragile while still containing a lot of definition. Again, there are short variations available, too, like with most of the long patches.
Overall, the string articulations all feature a feeling of brittleness and – at least to my ears – solitude, which is amazingly well paralleled by the cold and sometimes barren Scandinavian landscapes, the developers had in mind when creating these sounds.
The “Soft and Wild” patches contain some more effect-like string articulations, like harmonics, ricochets and tremolos. The latter ones are really one of my favorite patches in there since they create a wonderfully moving and icy feeling. The pizzicato articulations are something to mention particularly since they are played very loose and with different techniques. This makes them an interesting alternative to your every day, go-to pizzicato patch.
The brass patches provide you with a unique range of expressive brass articulations, from flutters, bends and slides to double tonguing and airy longs. Rather than laying down chordal pads, these patches excel at providing little sparkles and highlights to your tracks.
Two of my favorite brass articulations of Albion V are the Mini Crescendos and Bursts, since they both offer a nice, evolving and expressive brass pad sound.
The woodwind patches, too, are more on the effect-side of things with multiple overblow, flutter and trills articulations. I particularly like the long woodwind finger trills and flutter articulations since while providing a sense of movement and liveliness, they are very well suited as pads and chord beds. The inherent trills and flutters are more felt than heard, which makes the aforementioned articulations quite flexible.
As usual, you’ll find all of the articulations from the section patches laid out individually via the “Individual patches” folder.
Also included in the orchestral section of Albion V, you’ll find a couple legato patches. These are “legato-fied” versions of the high strings’ Air & Ice patch, as well as the high and low strings Flautando Con Sordino. The legato transitions of those patches are very subtle and just perceivable enough, to make melody lines glue together nicely.
The Brunel Loops folder gives you the choice between pre-designed, ready-to-play presets called “Arctic Combos” and a host of unprocessed, “Raw” rhythms. All of these derive from a recording session with Paul Clarvis and his special percussion instruments. Continuing the idea of staying on the soft side of sound, most of the Brunel Loops provide a subtle pulse and a sense of speed without pushing themselves to the fore. Therefore, they’re very usable for underscoring situations and for creating a sense of urgency without a rhythm being heard but rather felt.
All of the patches are laid out both as 80 BPM and 120 BPM versions. Although all the rhythms sync to your host tempo, it’s definitely helpful to choose a patch from the folder, that’s closer to your project’s tempo. This ensures, that the original loops won’t be sped up or down too much and that the sounds stay natural.
The eDNA engine, that houses the rhtyhms, provides you with a wide range of tweaking and modulation options, to make even the pre-designed patches become your own.
The Darwin Percussion section of Albion V Tundra features a set of processed low and high drums that all got a round and organic character to it. The patch is divided into four ranges on the keyboard, going from sub and low hits at the bottom left side to mid range and high hits on the right side of the keys.
The base idea of this percussion patch was to provide low, rumbling sounds while at the same time maintaining definition with the higher drums. This makes them perfectly suited for subtle accentuating and for creating calm, punctuated rhythms.
Since the hits are pre-mixed by well-known mixing engineer Jake Jackson, you’ll find no mic position sliders. However, all of the drums feature a full sound and a nice, lush sounding room ambience, which makes it easy to blend them into orchestral mockups.
Like with the base library Evo Grid, all of Spitfire Audio’s “Grid” instruments are designed to create sounds that evolve and change over time. Same with Albion V’s Vral Grid. In this rendition, they took a collection of Harmoniums and Shruti Boxes, which are bellowed drone-creating instruments from India and put them through heavy processing and modulation. In fact, the Harmonium & Shruti Box samples were originally intended for the orchestral section of Albion V, but since they just didn’t fit the “Tundra feel”, as lead developer Christian Henson puts it, they were abandoned originally. They then came up with the idea to morph the samples into a new, evolving “Grid” instrument which fit the bill quite perfectly. For the original recordings, Christian Henson made the players perform at the edge of the instrument’s bellows hissing and the reeds producing actual sound. This resulted in unique soundscapes which were then processed further into 32 so-called “Evos”, (Spitfire Audio’s label for long, evolving samples).
On the interface’s grid, you can now simply choose, which Evo you want to assign to which register. This way, playing chords on the keyboard yields in beautifully ever-evolving drones and pads, where each key triggers a different sample and/or starting point of sound. You can literally hold one chord for minutes, without hearing any loop points or repetitions.
One of my favorite things to do in the Vral Grid patch though, is to use the randomization feature, represented by a little dice symbol at the top center of the interface. Clicking the dice symbol randomizes the position of the pegs and provides you with wonderfully unpredictable sounds. According to the developers, this gives you about 33 trillion (that’s 12 zeros after the decimal place!) combinations of sound. This means, you probably won’t ever get the same patch twice.
Holding chords and changing just single notes over time leaves you with astonishing soundscapes that can form the start and centerpiece of any underscore or ambient piece of music.
STEPHENSONS STEAM BAND
The Stephensons Steam Band section, firmly established since the first edition of Albion, always was a staple for great sounding, organic pads, pulses and drones. Since the base material is always taken from the original orchestral recordings, the resulting patches always bring a modern, yet natural sounding feel with them, although they were being processed heavily with digital effects.
For Albion V Tundra, Spitfire Audio again drew upon their orchestral material but also incorporated samples from the Harmonium and Shruti Box sessions I mentioned in the Vral Grid section. Unlike the previous Stephensons Steam Band editions, this time, they wanted to go all analog and solely relied on out-of-the-box processing. This included vintage analog processors like a Roland Space Echo or classic Eventide gear. As a result, you’re given over 200 instruments and 160 presets.
For the first time, the “Stephensons” patches are housed within the eDNA engine, which provides you with a monstrous range of control and modulation options to shape your custom sounds.
Compared to the Vral Grid patch, the Stephensons Steam Band instruments perform more like an analog synth specialized on pads and pulses. There are lots of inspiring patches in there and they all got a certain feel of “earthiness” and humanity to them. An integral part of the instrument is the modwheel, which you should definitely try out on every preset since most of the time, it’s assigned to several macro controls.
On most of the patches, you can dial in the step sequencer via modwheel, providing you with the option of turning static pads into more or less rhythmic pulses. On other patches, pushing the modwheel introduces effects like distortion, reverb or filters, sometimes even a combination of these.
Most of the patches sound really epic and big, making them ideal for the big screen. Imagine dolly shots over enchanting, wide landscapes and you got the wonderful sound of Stephensons Steam Band.
After rearranging, condensing and refurbishing existing content with their previous releases, Spitfire Audio now finally comes up with something entirely new. While I initially thought that this library was more like a niche product designed for a certain compositional style, it seems to creep its way into many of my recent compositions because of its beautiful, natural sound and its ease of use. While this might not be a starter’s library for any broad orchestral needs (I’d suggest going for Albion ONE in this case), this is definitely a useful addition to any composer’s sound palette.
All of the samples radiate a high quality and the programming of the patches was executed flawlessly. Within the sounds, especially in the strings patches, you can sometimes hear a bow clicking or some clothes rustling, but in my opinion that doesn’t hurt the sound quality at all. Quite the opposite, for me it even boosts the human feel in the instruments and makes the whole thing sound more authentic. Let alone that if you hear a 100 piece orchestra perform at the edge of silence there just has to be some noise.
The processed sounds of Vral Grid and Stephensons Steam Band really blend in well with orchestral compositions, but are also suited well to other styles of music like ambient, chill out or even progressive house.
Based on the Ying-Yang mindset, mixing loud, epic sections with beautifully calm, haunting passages will really boost the quality of your tracks, and Albion V Tundra does an amazing job with delivering the serene part of the equation.
Albion V Tundra is currently available for £329.00 ($407.00) via Spitfire Audio‘s online shop.
Christian Henson’s walkthrough of Stephensons Steam Band:
Vral Grid Walkthrough