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ProjectSAM Symphobia 4: Pandora Review

John Krogh

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Whether it’s a rush job or you can take your time scoring an action film, you can’t go wrong with Pandora.

Since 2001, the Netherlands-based ProjectSAM has pioneered innovative sampling and programming techniques to create libraries designed to make it easy to compose professional-grade cinematic orchestral music—fast. Their original Symphobia library features a treasure trove of tastefully layered sample sets. This collection comprises different orchestral sections recorded together to create combined orchestral colors, articulations, and effects. Symphobia 1 allows composers to quickly achieve authentic, production-ready results without having to load separate instrument patches and program sequenced performances for each individual articulation or orchestral section. Upon its release, it set the standard not only for ProjectSAM’s future sample libraries, but for their competitors’ products, as well.

Since then, ProjectSAM has applied this same “working composer” ethos to each of its Symphobia titles. The recently released Pandora, the fourth in the series, puts the developers’ creativity, ingenuity, and impeccable programming prowess on full display.

Go Fourth and Conquer

Like the other titles in the series, Symphobia 4: Pandora focuses on specific stylistic and compositional needs rather than attempt to be a generic catch-all. The emphasis is on sounds that will give your “action, sci-fi, and horror scores a blockbuster boost” in the form of cinematic risers, epic percussion, dystopian effects, menacing clusters, and more.

This is not the library for swashbuckling melodies or pretty pads that pull at heartstrings. Pandora is all things tension and adrenaline. Beyond the multiple microphone perspectives, expertly recorded samples, and impressive collection of instruments and performances—all of which you would expect from a premium orchestral library—Pandora’s piece de resistance is a feature ProjectSAM calls Adaptive Sync.

Essentially, Adaptive Sync automatically synchronizes and adapts Pandora’s many rhythmic samples to your DAW’s temp. These include swells, drum rolls, tonal pulses, aleatoric phrases, etc. That makes quick work out of what has historically been a programming nightmare.

Have you ever tried to create a musical peak with prerecorded drum and cymbal rolls or instrumental crescendos? Then you know the often-painstaking work that goes into finding the right samples, laying them into your DAW, and then (probably) time-stretching everything and fine-tuning the timing of each element by hand. If the tempo of your cue changes, you end up redoing all of that work. Adaptive Sync lets you do in a snap what would previously take many minutes or even hours to craft. 

But there’s much more to Pandora’s story. It offers a wealth of sound design features and ways to customize its performance characteristics.

Pandora’s Boxed Set

Pandora requires version 6 or higher of Native Instruments Kontakt or Kontakt Player and is available in two sizes. The full version (reviewed here) weighs in at 140GB and features 148 instruments. The slimmed-down Pandora Core is only 18GB and features 48 instruments. Both are available only by download.

Instrument patches are organized into seven categories: Combos, Effects, Clusters, Tonal, Pulses, Risers, and Percussion. Technically, it has no multis—that is, combinations of single instrument patches contained within Kontakt’s Multi format, which allow you to stack a number of individual instruments, each with its own MIDI channel assignment, output, etc. However, in a sense, the Combos are multis. They feature layered combinations of three individual instruments from the other six categories.

Combos highlight the breadth of Pandora’s sample content. They demonstrate how you might combine instruments to build dramatic transitions, crescendos, impacts, or other thrilling musical gestures. Combos take great advantage of Adaptive Sync, allowing you to synchronize and adjust the timing of all three instruments from a single set of controls. For example, when change the length from, say, two beats to a bar and a half, the currently loaded articulations or performances (e.g., crescendos, risers, drum rolls, etc.) will automatically sync to your settings.

Adaptive Sync works remarkably well. It offers a level of adaptability that makes it easy to fit these recorded performances into your project with minimal fuss. It’s not an overstatement to say this feature alone may save composers hours of time. To be fair, this kind of synchro-sorcery isn’t entirely new to cinematic sample libraries, but ProjectSAM deserves points for pushing the envelope in this area. I suspect we’ll see many developers follow suit with future products.

Batches of Patches

Rather than go into great detail for each category, I encourage you to listen to the patch run-through below. These should give you a good idea of what to expect from each type of sound.

Combos

Layered combinations of individual instruments from the other categories 

Effects

Dissonant effects and textures 

Clusters

Separately grouped clusters performed by section (strings, brass, woodwinds) 

Tonal

Playable articulations, such as staccatos and crescendos, in octaves or unison. 

Pulses

Rhythmic, tempo-synced pulses recorded as clusters and tonal notes. 

Risers

String performances of varying articulations that rise or fall in pitch over time. 

Percussion

Timpani, gran cassa, toms, cymbals and more. 

The sample recordings and performances are uniformly excellent, and with separate close, stage, far, and wide microphone setups, Pandora is undeniably a top-shelf collection that offers composers what is arguably the best library of its kind. During the course of my review, I did experience longer-than-expected load times with instruments from every category. ProjectSAM is aware of this issue and is looking into a solution. Even so, if you need to inject suspense, action, tension, or terror into your next project, Pandora will deliver in spades.

Symphobia 4’s User Interface

Kudos to ProjectSAM for packing Pandora full of creative, musically useful features for customizing its sounds and performance characteristics. As an example, let’s look at the combo Cluster Swell (below), which combines percussion rolls with short and long clusters. From the red keys, you can change the length of the short cluster from 16th, 8th, or quarter-note accents, while the sync parameters in the Timpani & Gran Cassa: Rolls instrument affect the length of the rolls and cluster swells. The -12 and -24 buttons within the Controls module will pitch-shift the sound down by one or two octaves respectively, which is a great way to add more impact and interest. The Map button lets you quickly map a single key/sample across the instrument’s keyboard. That’s especially useful for layering percussion instruments, as these often have different playing techniques mapped to different keys. 

From the expanded Control module (below), you can limit the instrument’s velocity range so that it’s triggered only when it receives MIDI notes within the defined range. Further, you can move the instrument’s keymap up and down the keyboard using the Range trimming knobs. These may not seem like big-ticket features, but they do allow you to adjust the sounds for optimal use with your MIDI controller. This adds a level of control that power users should appreciate.

As you might expect, MIDI performance controllers are suitably mapped to relevant parameters throughout, making the instruments respond in intuitive and effective ways, all of which makes Symphobia 4: Pandora a joy to compose with.

Deep Design

Though the main thrust is on orchestral instruments and bombastic percussion, Pandora also includes a respectable set of sound-design features that you can press into service for hybrid scoring use. Effects include convolution reverb (though you have no way to choose different presets or impulse responses, just a simple gain control), delay with pitch control (a novel and nice surprise), a limiter, low- and high-shelf EQ, and a lowpass filter. For creating rhythmic, gated effects, you also get a stutter effect that modulates the instrument’s volume according to the LFO settings. I was especially pleased to see the inclusion of a pitch envelope. It works really well to “bend” sustained brass and strings over time to add extra disturbia and suspense.

Other instrument-specific controls let you twist and sculpt the sounds further. For instance, percussion hit patches offer sub sweeteners—deep, low-end synth samples that you can mix in softly with the acoustic percussion hits. The tonal pulses supply an optional synth layer with several choices of tones to add more weight and character.

Additionally, many of the instruments from multiple categories offer a “sound-design” mode that allows you to change the sample start point, playback direction (forward or reverse) and length. By tweaking sound-design parameters and adding multiple effects, I could get a lot more musical mileage from Pandora than you might think initially. It’s all fun stuff that expands Pandora’s musical vocabulary beyond purely orchestral applications. 

Similar to the Control module, you can expand the Effects module to reveal additional parameters (shown here) for warping and polishing the sound. 

Instant Sonic Mayhem

Symphobia 4: Pandora scores high marks for its musicality, flexibility, and feature-rich design. In particular, its varied recordings of combined orchestral sections performing all manner of clusters, risers, impacts, and other aleatoric effects are first-rate. Most of them would be virtually impossible to duplicate with the same degree of realism by layering individual section samples.

The material on hand is a wellspring of sonic mayhem that, thanks to Adaptive Sync, you could rework to fit a wide range of contexts. Given its niche nature, though, I wonder whether some might find Pandora’s price tag a bit steep. But then there’s always the Core version for those on a budget.

Ultimately, for anyone who frequently produces horror, action, or suspense-oriented music, Pandora is definitely worth the investment. If you’re unsure, ProjectSAM offers The Free Orchestra, which includes instruments culled from their Symphobia series (including Pandora), so you can check out some of these sounds free of charge.

Website: projectsam.com

Supported platforms: Native Instruments Kontakt, Kontakt Player (v 6.2.1 or higher)

Price: $659 (Pandora), $269 (Pandora Core)

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