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Orchestral Tools – Berlin Character Strings (Review)

orchestral tools berlin character strings review

Today we will be checking the Berlin Character Strings bundle by Orchestral Tools. This new release for the SINE Player includes 3 ports of sample libraries formerly designed for Kontakt, offered at a reduced price: Berlin Special Bows 1 and 2, along with Berlin First Chairs.

We asked ourselves the question: how well do these libraries that were first released back in 2014 hold up today? Do their ports to the SINE Player enhance them in any way? We were kindly provided with a review copy to find out.

OVERVIEW

Berlin Specials Bows 1 & 2 both feature a collection of advanced playing techniques, recorded with 8 first violins, 6 second violins, 5 violas, 5 celli and 4 double basses at the Teldex Scoring Stage. These string libraries mainly focus on bowing techniques like Harmonics, Sul Tasto, and Sul Ponticello. All sections have been recorded in situ, and feature 4 microphone positions, very similar to Orchestral Tools’ Berlin Strings.

The main goal of Special Bows 1 & 2 was to capture these special playing techniques with the same depth Berlin Strings offers, while introducing articulations such as Sul Tasto and Sul Ponticello legato, as well as offering several Round Robins on the corresponding short articulations. While all these features make Special Bows 1 & 2 fully compatible with their big sister library, they can also be used completely on their own. Here is a quick overview of the patches included: 

  • Sustain (with additional soft attacks for Sul Tasto)
  • Legato (Sul Tasto and Sul Ponticello only)
  • Portato (long and short, Sul Tasto only)
  • Staccato (Harmonics and Sul Ponticello only)
  • Tremolo (with additional accented attack for Sul Ponticello)
  • Col Legno

Berlin First Chairs features a quintet of string leaders of the Berlin orchestra, with 2 violins, a viola, a cello, and a double bass recorded at the Teldex Scoring Stage. The focus is more on standard playing techniques that can be used to add nuance and definition to orchestral arrangements.

All players have been recorded at their orchestral seating positions (as first chairs), in 3 dynamic layers, and with 5 microphone positions. This makes the First Chairs nicely compatible with the rest of the Berlin Strings family. Here is a quick overview of the patches included: 

  • Sustain (soft, immediate and accented attacks)
  • Legato
  • Portato (long and short)
  • Staccato
  • Spiccato
  • Pizzicato
  • Tremolo
  • Trills (half and whole tones)

SINE PLAYER

The Berlin Character Strings bundle is designed for OT’s SINE player. As with their previous SINE releases, this gives Orchestral Tools the ability to offer instruments separately. This is a huge advantage for composers wanting to expand on their instrument palette over time, or are just simply missing one particular instrument of the string section.

The usual SINE features, inherited from CAPSULE, are also present here. Some of the most notable ones include the function of allowing users to apply legato transitions to all articulations, excluding particular round robins if needed, or morphing 2 articulations together by using the so-called polyswitching controls.

ARTICULATIONS & SOUND

Berlin Special Bows 1 & 2 are 2 parts of the same library, aiming to give us additional colors to our orchestral palette. It includes 15 articulations across all sections, except for the double basses, which do not come with Harmonics Tremolo, Sul Ponticello Staccato, and feature Legato for the Sul Tasto articulation only. Except for the Harmonics, all the articulations are recorded in 2 to 3 dynamic layers and feature playing techniques that cover a broad range of emotions.

Berlin Strings Special Bows 1 – Articulation Overview

Going through the patches, I immediately noticed the beautiful and very detailed Sul Tasto articulations. This playing technique consists of moving the bow over the end of the fingerboard, giving the strings a softer, more delicate sound. One of the things that set this library apart is that it includes Sul Tasto legato patches, and their transitions are very fluid. They seem to benefit from SINE’s auto volume scaling, as they sound even smoother than the Kontakt versions before. The soft sustains are great for delicate beginnings of musical phrases, and overall the Sul Tasto patches are a wonderful fit for emotional statements. Most of these patches feature 3 dynamic layers, which is pretty unique in the sampling world.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Sul Ponticello technique consists in moving the bow very close to, or even on top of the bridge. This yields an eerie, glassy sound, with an emphasis an higher harmonics. Most of the Sul Ponticello patches feature 2 dynamic layers. The library also includes Sul Ponticello legato patches, something that once again sets it apart from many others on the market.

All these long articulations feature a subtle vibrato. It is not too pronounced and allows for some flexibility in their use, making it a perfect fit for both lead phrasings as well as textural layers.

Cello Player (Image by Robin Lambrecht)

When it comes to accents, the library offers Portato and Staccato patches that feature up to 5 RR. The long and short Portato patches are useful to emphasize some bow strokes in the middle of phrases. The Sul Ponticello and Harmonics staccato patches are quite unique and further set this library apart from others. 

Col Legno is also included, however, Orchestral Tools decided to sample this articulation differently across the sections: violins 1 have a piano (p) and forte (f) layer over 3 round robins, whereas the violas have a mezzo-forte (mf) and fortissimo (ff) layer over 5 round robins for example. This is an odd decision in what is otherwise a consistent library overall.

Berlin First Chairs, on the other hand, aims to add nuance and definition to orchestral pieces. As such, it covers more bread-and-butter playing techniques. The patch selection here is varied and covers most of the traditional articulations found in standard string libraries.

Berlin First Chairs – Articulation Overview

In contrast to Berlin Special Bows, the playing style of the long articulations is more expressive, with noticeable vibrato, without being overbearing. The tone is really lovely and detailed, one can definitely hear the typical wooden sound and airiness of the rosin. The different sustain attacks offer a nice sense of flexibility. The legato transitions are also feel smooth and fluid.

There is a good selection of shorts, featuring up to 6 round robins. While the variety of the short articulations is very nice, we did notice some inconsistencies in the playing style of the staccato articulations, especially from the viola soloist when compared to the other players.

No sampled solo string library can cover all uses perfectly, and each one of them seems to have a “sweet spot”, whether it is in the sonic quality or the playability. With First Chairs, the highlight is definitely the tone of these soloists. Since they were captured at the exact position of where they would sit in a bigger orchestral setup, the library provides an excellent choice for layering and textural work.

Speaking of which, layering libraries works particularly well with Berlin Symphonic Strings. This new string library also features some kind of soloists in the form of leader mic positions, but the addition of the First Chairs really adds a whole other level of definition. Another thing worthy of note: In addition to the Tree, AB, and Surround microphone positions, Berlin First Chairs also features 2 spot microphones, one of which being a vintage/ribbon mic that can add a lovely sense of warmth to the mix.

Berlin First Chairs – Microphone Mixer

CONCLUSION

With Berlin Character Strings, Orchestral Tolls is offering a beautiful-sounding bundle for a very attractive price. All three libraries share a wonderful tone and are capable of adding life, emotion, and definition to orchestral mockups and cinematic music in general.

Since the libraries were recorded using the same microphone array, they are great companions to both Berlin Strings and the more recent Berlin Symphonc Strings.

Where Berlin First Chairs shines with adding definition, Special Bows 1 & 2 will can out with their unique sets of playing techniques, rarely recorded at this depth before.

And once again with SINE, the fact that the individual instrument patches are available to buy in a pick-and-choose manner represents another huge advantage in terms of purchasing options.

Pros

  • Beautiful and detailed tone
  • Great SINE port, allowing for smoother legato performance than the previous Kontakt versions
  • Sul Tasto and Sul Ponticello articulations uniquely recorded over several dynamic layers
  • Good variety of short articulations

Cons

  • Some recording inconsistencies in the First Chairs staccato and Special Bows Col Legno articulations

RECOMMENDED: 8/10

Berlin Character Strings is available through Orchestral Tools’ online shop for €449. The individual libraries are also sold separately for €210 (Berlin Strings Special Bows 1), €129 (Berlin Strings Special Bows 2) and €299 (Berlin Strings First Chairs).

VIDEO WALKTHROUGHS

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