Sonokinetic Grosso reviewed

January 28, 2015

Sonokinetic might not be as much of a household name as some other sample developers currently are, but this relative newcomer to the market has a distinct and innovative line of products that pushes the limits of what we can expect from sample-based products, both musically and technically. With their latest release, Grosso, they’ve managed to take orchestral sample libraries in a new direction and to new heights that I suspect will have more established developers rushing to catch up. So what’s all the fuss about? 


Overview

Grosso comprises sampled loops for four orchestral instrument families—strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion—plus choir. There are no separate sections for violins, celli, trumpets, flutes and so on. Instead, a single patch for each instrument family contains all the related samples. The library is presented in 16- and 24-bit formats, and with “lite” versions for each instrument patch that offer one multi-miked perspective, making these patches less CPU- and RAM-intensive. There’s also a Transition Builder preset, which I’ll get to later.

Four microphone perspectives are available with the “full” patches: close, wide, Decca tree, and far. However, you can only mix between two mic positions within a patch. Fortunately, the perspectives are user-selectable—for example, you could mix close and Decca, or Decca and Wide. While control freaks might prefer to create a mix of all four mic positions, I found I had all the mix control I needed with only two.

Sonokinetic describes Grosso as a phrase-based instrument. If you’re familiar with other “phrase sample” products you might interpret this to mean a construction kit-style library with phrases presented in multitrack fashion, allowing you to assemble a credible-sounding track by layering various samples. It’s true that Grosso contains an impressive range of orchestral phrases that can be layered and combined to good effect. But Sonokinetic has taken the phrase-based sample library concept to a whole new level.

Indeed, the “instrument” moniker is well deserved, as Grosso is much more than a collection of related sampled loops that can be minimally time-stretched and pitch-shifted beyond their original tempi and key signatures. Because the phrases were recorded in multiple keys (both major and minor), and thanks to the quality of Kontakt’s built-in time-stretching engine and sophisticated scripting capabilities, the phrases can be played across an extreme range of tempos and in all keys without noticeable artifacts. There’s a high degree of musicality and musical flexibility to Grosso that I haven’t seen in any other phrase-based software instrument to date. 


Matrices and Phrases

While a bit of a head-scratcher at first, the user interface is actually quite clever, allowing you to load loops into cells within a 2x4 or 3x4 matrix, and then use key-switches to mute and switch among them on the fly. With strings, for example, Grosso provides a 3x4 matrix that, by default, contains high, mid, and low frequency material (roughly translating to violins playing in their high register, violin II and viola in their lower register, and celli/bass below this). The Woodwind and Brass presets offer 2x3 matrices with phrases organized by low and high. You’re free to mix frequency material as you like, however. For example, you could combine multiple low-frequency brass performances to create an intense and muscular passage.

One of the aspects that puts Grosso more in the “instrument” category is that in order to produce any sound, you need to play major or minor triads, which will produce the appropriate tonality. This is made possible through a combination of intelligent composition and orchestration prior to the sampling sessions to ensure musically related parts that will work together when layered, and Kontakt scripting that allows Grosso to interpret chord qualities, including inversions, and dynamically choose samples to produce the desired results. 

The performances were played at 135 bpm with a 12/8 feel, which I initially found somewhat limiting for more punctuated 4/4-feeling cues, until I discovered that it is possible to achieve 4/4-feeling results by adjusting the time signature in your DAW to 8/8 (Gross offers intelligent tempo syncing features, including the ability to adjust to different time signatures).

Stylistically the phrases are designed for media composers to create “epic, action and chase scenes,” according to the developer. To my ear, that’s a spot-on characterization. Musically, there are many phrases and variations that easily work together across all instrument families, which is a testament to Sonokinetic’s compositional expertise. On the whole, there’s a treasure trove of driving, dramatic, uplifting and menacing material to be mined, which I’m sure will make its way onto hordes of reality and action-documentary TV shows in no time (if it hasn’t already!).


User Interface Features

While perhaps unconventional, Grosso’s user interface offers a lot of functionality without having to dive into any menus or sort through lists of samples. Instead, phrases are presented as “graphic notation,” which are shapes that represent the musical score of each phrase. Since there are no descriptive names or specific musical references used to describe the sample material, there’s a higher level of experimentation that the user interface encourages, which I found refreshing and creatively stimulating.

However, you can also view the actual notation (see Fig. 1), so if you read music, you can easily recreate the sampled phrases using other multisampled libraries. I was able to sequence the same phrases with my go-to multisampled strings to create a more cohesive sound, for example. Also, since Grosso’s phrases are primarily a mix of ostinatos and repetitive accompaniment (there’s very little melodic material), you’ll likely need to employ other sources if you want to create original melodies.

Pressing the Info button (lower RH corner of the UI) toggles a help view that shows an overlay of descriptions for all the different sections of the interface, as shown in our main screenshot. This was very handy as I was getting to grips with Grosso and I suspect many users will rely on it ongoing to help them keep track of all the functionality available from the interface. (You won’t get very far without reading the manual, either.)

Now for that Transition Builder I mentioned earlier. This is a separate patch that uses scripting to let you build brass and woodwind crescendos, complete with percussion fills and accompaniment, based on various chords. The results are impressive and I’m sure I’ll be putting this to use in future cues when I need cinematic trailer-type emotion.


Conclusions

There’s a lot to love about Grosso. It offers a royalty-free and copyright-free license, so you can use it for most music writing projects without every worrying about legal limitations. Its interface encourages creative exploration. The phrase material from the different instrument families combines well to create extremely convincing orchestral passages (after all, the samples are recordings of real performances), and there’s a level of playability that no other orchestral phrase library can match.

Snap Judgment

PROS

Flexible and musical collection of orchestral phrases that can easily be mixed and matched to create complete orchestral passages quickly. Includes all orchestral instrument families, plus choir and Taiko drums. Affordable.


CONS

Some minor version 1 bugs (Kontakt would lose the library each time I closed a session). A few performances had suspect timing.

Bottom Line

If you write orchestral cues for deadline-driven media projects and you’re okay submitting music that’s not entirely original, Grosso is definitely worth the investment.

€299.90 direct | sonokinetic.net

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