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Spitfire Audio BBC Symphony Orchestra, Reviewed

Rob Shrock

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Spitfire Audio sampled the entire BBC Symphony Orchestra to craft a deep and versatile sample library plug-in. Does it live up to expectations?

Spitfire Audio has made no secret that the ambitious idea behind BBC Symphony Orchestra was to create “a universal starting point” for composers. In other words, they want to provide a single, complete orchestral sample library both diverse and affordable enough that working professionals, students, and amateurs alike could share as a common toolbox—one that would play back consistently between users on disparate computer systems and still sound top-notch.

Bragging Rights

Spitfire Audio has certainly pulled off a feat in name recognition. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is renowned throughout the world for their live performances and recordings in film and on television. Recorded during 200 hours at Maida Vale Studios in London—the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s home since 1934—this 566GB library aims to capture an existing musical institution in its native environment. Kudos to Spitfire for paying ongoing royalties to the players for each sale of the library. To my knowledge, Cinesamples is the only other major developer who pays such respect (and back-end money) to the players involved in the sampling sessions.

Spitfire has really gone the distance with all the microphone configurations needed to capture the beauty of phenomenal players in a world-class studio. BBCSO contains no less than 11 mic positions, five spill mic sets, channels for Dolby Atmos, and two separate stereo mic mixes prepared by film and TV mixer Jake Jackson. In all, BBCSO provides a very sonically flexible array of sonic choices.

The Road Less Traveled

Spitfire has stepped away from Native Instruments Kontakt for this library, as they did for Hans Zimmer Strings and their Labs series of small, experimental libraries. The Spitfire plug-in runs in all the common formats for the Mac and Windows (VST2, VST3, AU, AAX, and NKS-ready); however, it does require a host DAW, as there is no standalone version.

Spitfire Audio BBC Symphony Orchestra Example #1

For anyone familiar with the Kontakt skins of previous Spitfire libraries, the available articulations, keyswitches, mic arrays, and many of the controller features are presented in a similar fashion. However, the look is quite different from previous libraries, employing an elegant white on black background that suits the prominently featured BBC Symphony Orchestra logo nicely. Although this makes for a clean, simple interface, there is no differentiation between, say, instances of strings and brass. On more than one occasion I found myself editing the wrong open plug-in, as they all look basically the same at a glance. I would like to see some more obvious visual aids to help sort the different libraries, like specific colors for different instrument sections (strings, woodwinds, etc.), and maybe even an image of the specific instrument on its interface.

The plug-in’s GUI packs a lot of features and controls into essentially three screens, with the majority of most-used features on the main Technique page. Here you find the various articulations tailored to the specific instrument, the Expression and Dynamics sliders, and a big wheel called The Knob that controls various parameters such as reverb or vibrato. You can assign all of these controllers to MIDI messages. Here you also find settings for other features, such as Round Robins (up to five on short articulations), transpose, keyswitch assignments, and the like.

The Mixer page is where you access the abundant supply of mic positions. In addition to the two main mixes by Jake Jackson, you get close mics, Decca Tree, outriggers, ambient mics, mono, leader mic, close wide, basic stereo, mids, sides, and balcony perspectives. As if that weren’t already more than enough, you also get spill mics: the open microphones for each section, including a mix of all the spill mics together. All these perspectives allow you to, for instance, add in the sound of the strings bleeding into the brass microphones or the woodwinds bleeding into the open percussion mics. This really adds to the natural sense of depth in the orchestra, although it quickly adds up to be quite taxing on most systems.

Spitfire Audio BBC Symphony Orchestra Example #2

One minor quibble: I do wish that lowering the volume of an active mic position all the way down would not automatically turn off the position and unload the samples. Load times can be a little on the slow side, even on an SSD.  I would prefer that the on/off switch for each mic position were independent of the volume slider.

When you pull back the ambient mics and favor the close mics and Decca Tree, you can get a very up-close and personal sound that is still rich and congruent. Dial up the ambience in numerous ways as you add in the outriggers and ambient mics to simulate lots of places in between very dry and very wet.

I do get where Spitfire is coming from; if you’re going to go to this much trouble and expense, throw up as many mics as you can. Amazingly, the mics all play together very well for the most part, which is no easy feat. When you take all the mic choices into consideration, this makes BBCSO an unusually adaptable sample library. I don’t think any other orchestral library is as sonically versatile as BBCSO before layering on any artificial reverb.

The last page is for the controllers. It’s basically a display of all the continuous controllers available in The Knob in one place simultaneously. These controllers are specific to the instrument and active articulation.

Spitfire Audio BBC Symphony Orchestra Example #3

A Closer Look

Frankly, the plug-in’s user interface wastes too much space. Although it is resizable (thank you!), I would prefer bigger controls and especially larger and stronger type. It is not always easy to read. That being said, the layout of controls is quite logical and easy to grasp. I was able to get around the interface and the library almost entirely without opening the manual.

Of particular note, Spitfire BBC Symphony Orchestra is currently monotimbral only. It is not possible to layer sounds on the same MIDI channel within an instance; you must do that in your DAW using separate plug-in channels. I hope to see this issue addressed in the future for times when you simply want to add a solo instrument to an ensemble or quickly layer a flute and oboe.

If you loathe wading through dozens of individual patches looking for a specific articulation, you’re in luck. A single patch contains all articulations for any given instrument. While this greatly simplifies the process of picking instruments and setting up templates, it does more or less lock you into a working method of using keyswitches to move between articulations. In addition to normal latched keyswitching, a very nice feature is the ability to engage momentary keyswitching, in which holding down a key temporarily changes the articulation and returns to the previous articulation upon release.

Unlike in Kontakt, you can’t go under the hood and edit the samples, keymaps, or envelopes. The Spitfire plug-in is most definitely presented as a playback-only engine, but it has a lot going on behind the scene. Many of the instruments have a kind of playability under the fingers that you seldom find in orchestral libraries; that makes me suspect some well-thought-out DSP is happening behind the scenes.

Another Kontakt feature currently missing from Spitfire’s plug-in is the ability to purge unused samples. Whenever you call up an instrument, it loads the entire sample set. In general, the library is quite large and RAM-hungry—especially as you open up more mic positions—and it would be helpful to purge any unused samples, especially for larger orchestrations. I’m hoping Spitfire will add this capability in the near future.

Taking into consideration the relative newness of this plug-in format, its performance is quite solid and impressive. To Spitfire’s credit, BBC Symphony Orchestra feels like a plug-in that has already gone through more years of development and growing pains than its roughly one year of life. I can only hope Spitfire looks at their proprietary interface as a work-in-progress that they will refine moving forward. One could easily argue that a bespoke plug-in engine tailored for a specific library is ultimately more efficient than a commercial behemoth like Kontakt, but time will tell.

The Sound of the BBC

First and foremost, this library sounds fantastic. Rather than sampling a collection of studio players, Spitfire has recorded an elite group of experienced, professional orchestra players who sit beside each other every working day. The entire orchestra is represented here: strings, woodwinds, horns, and percussion.

Spitfire BBC Symphony Orchestra divides strings into individual section instruments with separate first and second violins. It also provides leader instruments for string sections. Up close, the first-chair players can almost function as standalone solo string libraries. Horns and woodwinds give you a variety of solo instruments and ensembles that are fairly standard, with four French horns, three trumpets, three clarinets, three flutes, etc. Percussion includes the usual suspects of untuned and tuned instruments such as timpani, harp, celeste, vibraphone, etc. You won’t find anything too exotic here, but you will find most everything you need for traditional orchestral writing and arranging.

I did notice some minor volume inconsistencies between articulations at times. This is more critical because all articulations are loaded into a single patch. I certainly hope Spitfire will iron out this issue over time. However, if you turn off the Global setting on the mixer page, you can adjust the mics used and balance them individually for each articulation. Although not ideal as a way to naturally balance articulations to each other, you have room for some creative exploitation of this feature.

In addition, some of the keyswitch assignments are not completely consistent among all instruments, which can slow you down when grabbing, say, a Long articulation that was on C-2 in a number of other patches and now is inexplicably on D-2 for the instrument at hand.

One criticism BBCSO has faced is that the instruments are not detailed enough, and I understand this sentiment. A lot of the instruments contain just three dynamic layers (roughly pmf, and f). While most of the transitions between layers are quite good in context, I noticed both a ceiling and a floor on the extreme dynamics of pp and ff.

The library has a restraint that is quite British; this is not the one you’ll reach for when going for over-the-top trailer music that sounds like eight French horns blasting at full volume over 100 strings. Some of the extreme soft layers—quite often an area where I work—aren’t always there, either. This works a bit against the idea of being a library for everyone in all situations.

However, I noticed something interesting while working with BBCSO. Sometimes I pulled up an instrument and thought to myself, “That’s pretty good…but I’ve heard better and more detailed representations before.” And maybe I have. But as I created more parts and added to an arrangement, most of the perceived weaknesses in the instrument faded into the sound of the orchestra as a whole, which is precisely how a real orchestra works. This library has a cohesion that is palpable, especially as you go deeper into creating a complex orchestration. Proper orchestration techniques pay dividends with this library.

World-Class Performance

The performances deliver a natural fluidity that is confident and refined. The sounds easily blend together into a whole as your work progresses, and in the end, you really do end up with the sound of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It’s a sound that’s often restrained to a certain degree. If you live in the U.K.—which I have and will again soon—it is a sound you recognize from years of exposure to British TV and film.

Some of this sound has to do with the room itself. Maida Vale Studios is a beautiful set of rooms that, unfortunately, is scheduled to be closed by 2022 or at least will cease to be the home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It’s an historic and iconic studio complex that has hosted numerous classic pop recordings, TV and film scores, and live sessions for radio broadcast. Unlike the cinematic, larger-than-life sound of Air Lyndhurst commonly found in Spitfire’s orchestral libraries, Maida Vale is more neutral and not as cavernous. Given the numerous mic configurations, you have a very versatile sonic palette for an orchestra.

Spitfire has done an amazing job of preserving this iconic blending of orchestra and room for the future, if only virtually. I do hope that in all the many hours of sampling, they have more content to add to the instruments over time. Maida Vale is not gone yet, so perhaps even more sampling sessions could be in our future.

This a lot of library for very little money compared to many other mega-libraries that are sold piecemeal by different instrument sections. Although no sample library is perfect or exhaustively complete in what it can achieve compared to a real orchestra, Spitfire BBC Symphony Orchestra has largely succeeded in its lofty ambition. Let’s hope Spitfire continues the dream.

Website: spitfireaudio.com

Supported platforms: VST, AU, AAX (Mac and PC), NKS-compatible dedicated plug-in

Price: $999 (delivered on 1TB SSD drive for an additional $249)

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