By MICHAEL GALLANT
Whether you want driving pizzicato string basses to fuel your horror movie score or a soaring violin section to bring your pop ballad home, there’s nothing like a solid orchestral presence to give your recordings power and panache. That said, hiring the New York Philharmonic isn’t cheap, so what’s to be done? Enter Cinematic Strings 2, a Kontakt Player 5-based virtual instrument that seeks to bring the strings to you, packed with Hollywood dynamism. Its price, while not exactly in the impulse-buy range, is far less than many comparable film-oriented string libraries. Does CS2 deliver?
At a Glance
Even before I played my first note with CS2, I was struck by the cleanliness of the design and how easy it was to navigate. CS2 offers five string patches—first violins, second violins, cellos, violas, and basses — and as soon as you call one up, you immediately have mic mixing sliders in front of you. By customizing your mix amongst the three mic positions (close, stage, and room), you can easily craft a sound that feels more intimate and dreamy, or raucous and punchy, or whatever suits the mood. Just be aware that the more mic positions you activate, the more RAM CS2 needs.
Also readily available on the main screen are a useful variety of standard articulations for each string patch, among them arco, tremolo, half and whole trills, marcato, pizzicato, and then Run mode, which is specifically designed for fast passages. Each articulation has a factory assigned key-switch that you can use to toggle between options, but it’s a simple matter to assign your own triggers, or use MIDI CCs to activate or deactivate the articulations you want.
Click on the Advanced tab and you can tweak the length of notes in staccato, staccatissimo (even more staccato), and pizzicato settings, as well as adjust the intensity of the instrument’s Live mode (more on that later) and choose high or low playing positions, a parameter that gives you even more tonal variations to play with.
It’s all right there, and that, in and of itself, is an impressive feat. CS2 seems to have struck an admirable balance between depth of tweakability and not making said tweakable options wildly intimidating or difficult to find.
To my ears, CS2 delivers straight out of the proverbial box with string sounds that are vivid, dynamic, and . . . well, cinematic. Sustained “Arco Bass” notes rumbled with a level of grit and menace that would make Christopher Nolan happy. “Pizzicato Cellos” brought to mind touching moments from movies like Forrest Gump and Up. “Violins 2” set in Run mode took me to the optimistic vigor of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. These are sounds that made me think in terms of pictures and stories: I felt immediately connected to them and inspired to compose.
As a huge fan of live, organic string music, I found myself listening for telltale signs of digitalia as I played and, though I could indeed find ways to make CS2 sound artificial if I tried, doing so wasn’t nearly as easy as I would have expected. Executing fast “Violin 1” scales with the Run mode articulation setting, while applying the instrument’s Live mode (a cool feature that drops in custom samples to mimic the subtle rhythmic and tuning chaos of a live orchestra) sounded as realistic as I could ask for, and if I closed my eyes, it was easy to imagine myself listening to a live orchestra recording. That said, Live mode is not a panacea, and can sometimes be too much—some of my arco bass work actually sounded more vibrant and cohesive without it, so be sure to experiment with Live mode different levels of intensity.
I enjoyed using the factory-assigned key-switches to jump from staccato to tremolo to whole trills in real time as I played, and riding the volume with my keyboard’s mod wheel also added a great level of realism and control. If you’re new to this sort of thing, please note that using key switches in real time does take practice, but basically relies on the same musical and mental muscle you’d use to adjust B-3 drawbar settings or tweak a Minimoog filter. In the past, I’ve relied on drawing volume swells into my virtual strings’ MIDI data for added realism, but CS2’s ease of use allowed me to pour plenty of expression into my performances as I was playing them. Editing in dynamics after the fact proved largely unnecessary.
One minor issue with key-switching and articulations: When playing, say, an angst-ridden viola line in real time, I would like to be able to switch a sustained note from half to whole trill without retriggering it. CS2 was wise to make it possible to switch articulations under the cover of a sustained note without affecting that note’s sound, but I would also have liked a way to turn that function off—and make such changes activate immediately.
My only other gripe with CS2? It sounds so good that I found myself hoping for solo violin or cello patches of the same depth and quality. It was a small disappointment that such instruments aren’t included outside of a section context, though perhaps Cinematic Strings will oblige in an iteration to come.
One final note: CS2 uses some hefty samples and can swallow RAM very quickly. The instrument gives you plenty of easy-to-implement opportunities to economize RAM usage—switching off unused articulations, loading and unloading mic positions, and so on—but to enjoy all that CS2 has to offer to the fullest, a powerful, speedy machine is a must.
| The advanced tab gives you partial envelope control over individual articulations.
Given its synthesis of usability, power, and musical depth—at a reasonable price point to boot—CS2 is a strong choice for a wide variety of string solutions. Regardless of whether I’m writing theme music for a video series, mocking up a concerto, or doing nearly anything else that involves virtual bows and resin, I see myself happily turning to CS2 to give me what I need.
PROS Easy to learn and use. Streamlined design. Powerful, versatile, realistic string sounds. Kontakt 5-compatible.
CONS Does not offer solo instruments. Key switches and program changes cannot alter the articulations of a note mid-sustain.