Spitfire Audio Albion V – Tundra Review: Build Textured Soundscapes

The latest in the Albion series, from Spitfire Audio, takes us right to the edge of silence. Dave Gale takes his laptop out to a frozen fjord, and takes a long and detailed look…

Albion Tundra V

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Manufacturer – Spitfire Audio
Price £399 +VAT
Contact Spitfire Audio via website
Web www.spitfireaudio.com

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Something that has become quite fashionable with certain media and film soundtracks is the inclusion of long and evolving textures, some of which might be electronic, but others which might draw on an acoustic starting point, and that is where Albion V – Tundra might be of great use.

The Scando/Estonian Effect

Citing composers such as Arvo Pärt as the inspiration for this library, Albion V attempts to offer the user a palette of samples which are quiet, reflective, and subtly rather grand in concept.

Consequently, the original samples would have been very demanding for the musicians to play, often going right to the quietest dynamic range of the acoustic instruments in an attempt to recreate the sort of library that would be perfect for recreating these Scandinavian and Pärt-like textures.

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Like the other Albion libraries, there is an element of working right out of the box, as workflow is always an important consideration for the sort of people that might be drawn to this library.

Beginning with the orchestral side of Albion V, sections are divided into highs and lows rather than individual instruments, which makes for immediate gratification but, strangely, does not appear to affect flexibility in use.

The high and low Strings break into two categories; Main and Soft And Wild. The Main section offers plenty of sustained notes, with the usual Spitfire elements of humanistic quality and atmospheric noise, which makes every note sound that little bit different, sometimes with included imprecision, making for a more overall human performance.

Apart from the obvious sustained patches, particular favourites of mine included the Frozen and Air And Ice patches, with an ever increasing presence of Rosin on the bow, which makes it feel like you are standing in Air Studios with the 100-piece orchestra. In fact, there are so many great patches, it would be impossible to mention them all, but imagine every conceivable use of hushed string tones and they will be here, including some very beautiful use of harmonics and tremolo.

The Ricochet patch is another nod to the great Arvo Pärt, with its homage to his work Fratres, as the individual players’ bows move gently out of sync to create a wonderful arpeggio texture, which only a live string player could do so convincingly. The low strings offer the same palette, but somehow feel slightly overwhelmed by the upper strings, not offering the more weighty gravitas that one might prefer in this setting.

Granted, it does what it says on the tin, but the cellos and basses feel overshadowed in this setting, as the upper strings glisten in their simplistic beauty. Maybe this is the Albion plan? Building your library from the other Albion libraries will more than fill any hole that you might have, where the lower strings need some reinforcement.

Moving on to the brass, these instruments offer a very different palette to the strings, but are equally interesting. With only a single layer here, but still split into highs and lows, we start with Air being blown through the instruments, offering a muffled centre of pitch, in favour of something quite wind like. The Bursts patch is bristling with crescendo and colour, as an element of randomness singles out each player at a time, with a quick climatic note end, before disappearing back into the crowd.

A very similar patch is Granular Flutter, which plays a similar gag, with some flutter tonguing being deployed. It’s starting to veer into the world of horror sounds, but don’t be put off. There’s plenty to choose from, including some bizarre moments, such as trumpeters playing instruments with removed tuning slides, which sounds more akin to a bad player, as can be heard from the clear difficulty of tuning (all on purpose, I’m sure).

Tundra

It’s a very similar story with the lower brass, however, since they’re lower, certain patches work better due to the register of the instrument. Multiphonics is a case in point where, due to the lower tonal centre of the trombones and tuba, the harmonics created are far more convincing, which is hardly surprising, as performing a Multiphonic requires a player to sing down the instrument at the same time as playing, and it’s always more effective to sing an upper harmonic than to try to sing below the fundamental.

Albion Alternatives

As far as I’m aware, I don’t know of another library which has such a clearly defined concept as this. For many of us, up until now, we have always used conventional libraries to achieve something approximating the effects found here, often with the use of either chamber-sized groups, or – in the case of the strings – muted, or ‘con sord’, to give it the full classical term. If you are lacking a good string library, there are plenty of places to consider, beginning with Spitfire’s very own Symphonic Strings or Chamber Strings.

However, there are a variety of other compelling options out there, including the Orchestral Tools Berlin String library, and Cinesamples CineStrings library, both of which are broken into elements, allowing the user to purchase the sections they need to build up a larger palette, as and when required.

Do I Really Need This?

A library of this kind is pretty much designed for purpose. If you already have some good orchestral samples, which are what you might regard as mainstream, this will complement them well: but don’t go expecting fast runs and big sweeping Wagnerian melodic-type content! That’s not what’s on offer here, but if you want something subtle, quiet, and with samples that are excellent for pad-like or soundtrack work, you’ll enjoy working with this.

There’s plenty of choice within each section for interesting sounds, and the usual dynamic range (albeit on the quieter side) is also available for programming through MIDI CCs. The Darwin percussion is basic, subdued, but perfect for the purpose that it’s designed for. The groove percussion is a bonus, but better groove stuff can be found elsewhere, from the usual companies that are better known for such content.

When the Wind Blows

The wind section is very much in tandem with the brass effects, with more ‘air-like’ blown effects, fluttering, and overblown patches, which sometimes sound more like a train whistle than a section of flutes, but again, so useful in their own way.

What I like about the Orchestral section overall is the attention that has been paid to getting some interesting textures. Granted, many of these will be handy for only occasional use, but then that largely depends on the sort of music that you write, and whether you have a demand for these sounds. If you do, you will very much be in luck, because the palette is extensive, easy to use and just sounds glorious.

There is complete control over the close and distant mic settings, and the latest style of Kontakt/Spitfire interface, which makes it very easy to use, thanks to both key-switching, for control of loaded samples, and MIDI CCs for control of dynamics. But even at full dynamic tilt, this is not designed to be a big brash piece of work, but more considered; and in this respect, it’s a major achievement.

Percussive Elements

Moving away from the main body of the orchestra, Spitfire has included some equally enticing percussive elements. The Darwin Percussion section contains some large drums, but in keeping with the rest of library concept, they are played quietly and allowed to ring mercilessly, which gives a clue to their size. These have an amazing cinematic depth to them, which is so often missing from drum and taiko samples.

The bright front end, with the back end rumble, immediately resonates with any soundtrack composer, and for once, they’re not being struck for all they’re worth. Alongside the Darwin section, the Brunel Loops section demonstrates another level to the library. Featuring percussionist Paul Clarvis, who is a London session favourite (as well as being the guy that somehow taught 1,000 drummers to drum, for the choreography of the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony), this section delves into the abstract and alternative.

Essentially groove-based, and tempo-locking to your DAW, these grooves fall into line with the general outlook of the whole package, but offer far more movement and volume than seen elsewhere. There is a mixture of drum- and metal-based timbre, making extensive use of the eDNA engine, developed with Blake Robinson, which offers a fair degree of editability, thanks to the layering of two individual samples and the resynthesis/shaping and effects offered within.

The onboard Gate Sequencer gets quite an outing here, as many of the grooves lock to the 16-/32-step ideal, triggering accordingly. There’s much more pace and colour here, but the esoteric nature of this section seems not to distract from the overall library manifesto, despite the pace on offer.

That’s largely due to Clarvis himself, who has a reputation for being able to get a rhythm out of anything that you can hit or shake, so the consequence is something which feels otherworldly, although in my view, some of the loops feel a little too produced, with the wash-like swirls that are often heard in the Stateside libraries from the West Coast.

Just as well, then, that all the loops are available in various forms, from raw to produced, so there’s plenty of scope to work with what’s there, and be more creative with the raw sample data, which is not something that is always available in other libraries.

Steaming on Through

The next part of the Tundra jigsaw is formed from the Stephenson’s Steam Band, which is largely a pad-based section. This again uses the eDNA engine, and for me, this is where this engine lights up. The wash of beautiful pads with intriguing timbres is extensive, offering wisps of colour and often Mellotron string/choir like tones, which include timbral sources such as bellows.

This feels as though it’s far more part of what this library is about, offering what feels like an electronic version of the beautiful orchestral samples heard earlier. Yes, they are essentially pads, and some of them really take their time to do their thing, but that’s the whole point of Tundra; it’s about the grandeur of space, and melted in with the orchestral elements sounds very beautiful indeed.

The final part to mention is that of the Spitfire favourite, the Evo Grid, which to the uninitiated is an EMS VCS3-like pinhole grid, which can induce a certain random nature into proceedings, by way of evolution over time, and dictated by the register of notes played.

I’m a big fan of the Evo Grid, and I particularly like one of the elements that it offers. This is literally a roll of the dice, as it randomises all of the available elements (of which there are essentially 32 samples). So the concept is that as you play, the sounds unfold over time and alter as you move from one note to the next as other samples are assigned to different ranges of the keyboard. In the Tundra context, it sounds beautifully otherworldly, and it’s also possible to access the 32 individual Evo samples, if you want a little more control.

Tundra In Context

This is a pretty unique library, and clearly one that the Spitfire guys are very passionate about, as can be seen from their announcement trailer. But but then I also think that this is in part down to the nature of certain Western classical composition, much of which influences what occurs in the soundtrack world.

You’ve only got to listen to the likes of Thomas Newman and James Horner (who tragically died in 2015), to hear the heavy influence of 20th-century composers such as Arvo Pärt, and understand how a library of this kind might be popular.

The Orchestral side of Albion V really stands out for me, and offers a beautiful take on something that we have nearly been able to do with sampled strings, but without the nuance of the subtle sampling that we hear here, or indeed the budget to hire a complete orchestra and record it.

The subtlety of tone in the sampling is quite beautiful and perfectly complemented by some of the more obscure wind and brass samples available. You’ll not need some of these wind/brass effects all of the time, of course, but if you’re writing the sort of music that would benefit from both subtlety and space, with a degree of abstract and esoteric, this will be one
to look out for.

I’m not completely convinced by the more groove-based elements, which for me sit to the outskirts of this library, but they make up a relatively small part of a library which offers so much elsewhere.

The Darwin Percussion fits in perfectly, as does the pad side of the library, which in turn perfectly complements the overall concept behind Tundra.

The thinking behind the entire series should be applauded. All of the Albions offer an interesting ‘take’ on sounds designed for professional scoring, and in this regard, Tundra is another classic to come out of the Spitfire stable.

Spitfire Audio Albion V – Tundra: Key Features

● Multifaceted library
● Orchestral samples and similarly derived content
● Includes pads, textures, percussion and more
● Very distinctive
● Requires Kontakt player
● 44.3GB of of space required for uncompressed samples

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