Using a long, evolving bed of stringed instruments to enhance the sense of drama and tension in a scene for TV or film isn't anything new. Minimalist string arrangements are commonplace in the field, but creating these slow-moving scores using virtual string libraries can be a challenge, as the samples included often aren't recorded with enough length and variation to keep a listener’s ear engaged without sounding artificial or contrived. The sample specialists at Spitfire Audio recognised the need for a new type of sample library to address this problem, and in February of last year they released a Kontakt instrument called Evo Grid, which offered "long, evolving chamber strings." This initial release was successful enough that they added three more libraries to the series, the last of which was curated and produced by the innovative Icelandic composer and producer Ólafur Arnalds.
Even if you're not familiar with Arnalds, odds are you may have heard his work. Whether it be with Janus Rasmussen as Kiasmos, his collaborations with Nils Frahm, or in soundtrack work for films like The Hunger Games, his emotive textural arrangements are hard to miss—in fact, it was his name on the Spitfire press release that initially caught my attention. What's more, Arnalds had experience in hardcore and electronic music before making his name in modern classical, and with this eclectic background in mind, I was curious to see how far his sample pack would push the concept of evolving, cinematic strings.
This was my first experience with Spitfire Audio's sample libraries, and as such I was a bit surprised by their no-frills approach. The library is provided via the Spitfire Audio Library Manager, which allows you to download and install your purchased sample packs. The Ólafur Arnalds Evolutions library weighs in at 15.2 GB, but the files downloaded surprisingly fast for me thanks to good bandwidth on both sides of the connection. You can choose any disk location for the installation, but it’s best to choose someplace memorable because you’ll need to navigate back there via Kontakt's file browser—there's no fancy library integration like you'll find on some other commercial Kontakt instruments. There's also no manual to be found, which came as a bit of a shock. According to Spitfire's website, they are still working out the best process for creating and managing their manuals, which is a surprisingly honest admission. What they do have are some good walkthrough videos on YouTube, and I found that once I had gone back and watched the tutorials for the original Evo Grid and the new Ólafur Arnalds library, things became much clearer.
When you open any of the Evo Grid family of instruments, this one included, you're greeted by a rather unlikely addition to what you'd expect from the user interface of an orchestral sample library: a pin matrix based on the EMS VCS3 synthesiser. The pin matrix on the EMS handled the routing of audio and CV signals within the instrument, where on the Evo Grid it functions as a means to assign different "Evos"—essentially a set of long notes with differing timbral characteristics—to certain parts of a keyboard. The horizontal axis denotes which Evo is selected while the vertical axis handles the pitch. Below the 16x16 grid are three additional rows of controls that allow you to enable or disable effects and adjust the volume and pan of each Evo. The effects were chosen specifically for string beds, namely reverb, delay and tape saturation, each of which have controls on the front panel. As with any Kontakt instrument however, you can always open the edit panel and add additional effects to the instrument’s signal chain if you want to experiment further.
The Evo Grid within Ólafur Arnalds Evolutions is colour-coded to separate the different Evos into four categories. Starting from the left, the first five are the Subtle Evos and, as their name implies, these are the most conservative sounds when it comes to the playing style of the string quartet sampled for this pack. The next four teal columns represent the Thrills selection of Evos, which include greater tremolo and faster bowing speeds for more frenetic textures. Continuing to the right you’ll find the Episodic Evos in red, which include styles designed by Arnalds for his soundtrack to the British television show Broadchurch. In green are the Dissonants, which add pitch bend to the list of variations and are the most extreme of the bunch—when layered with other Evos, they devolve into cacophonous madness.
In addition to the variation available in the different Evo styles, the Spitfire team also give you the ability to fine-tune the characteristics of the sounds by mixing signals recorded by four different mic styles: mix, close, valve, and ribbon. Further experimental options can found with Warped Instruments, which offer processed versions of the Evo samples. To my ear this processing includes some stereo width processing, compression, and even some time stretching, which results in a more synthetic feel that I could see fitting well in an electronic production. It's worth bearing in mind that all of the samples used in Kontakt are easily accessible within a subdirectory, so you can easily mangle them further in your own way.
the Ólafur Arnalds Evolutions library is clearly not designed for your everyday producer. It's not a full-featured string library with all different types of articulations. But it is a great way to add the meticulous and unique sounds of Arnalds' string quartet productions to your Kontakt arsenal. If you're a fan of those haunting Icelandic sounds, this is the best option out there.