Review: Spitfire 'Plucked Pianos' and 'HG20'

British company offers beautiful sampled instruments at competitive prices. Photo: Spitfire

COLLEGE PARK, Md., November 30, 2013 – Spitfire Audio was formed in 2008 by a British team of film, game and media composers, and they have since given composers a battery of new sampled instruments with which to expand their sonic palettes. This week, we will review two recent products from Spitfire Audio titled “Plucked Piano” and “Hg20.” 

Spitfire’s musical aesthetic is to choose flawed humanity and real personality over studio perfection. This approach often results in highly believable instrumental samples, which – warts and all –  deserve to be heard by more composers on this side of the pond. While the company’s official focus seems to be on film and media composers, classical composers and those seeking to create appealing mock-ups of their work may find a great deal to like about Spitfire’s products. 

Just on the heels of our recent complaints that UVI’s IRCAM Prepared Piano did not include any finger-plucked samples, Spitfire’s “Plucked Piano” delivers admirably in this regard. The sound of a finger-plucked piano falls somewhere on the spectrum between a cimbalom and a harp, making a wonderfully evocative sound, especially with the sustain pedal held down.

Spitfire’s approach to sampling this extended technique creates a multi-layered instrument of two samples: piano strings plucked either with the fleshy tip of the finger, or the fingernail itself. A variety of microphone positions are provided to further customize the sound, including direct digital microphones and a physical “tape” recording as well. 

Screenshot of Spitfire “Plucked Piano” and “Hg20” software as accessed via Kontakt interface. (Spitfire)

Mixing the various microphone styles and levels allows a great deal of subtlety in terms of affecting space, while the much-appreciated (and customizable) round robin samples – samples that trigger different attacks on repeated notes for added realism – add another layer of believability to a performance. 

The Spitfire package includes several CC controlled samples as well as a velocity controlled set. Also offered is a bank of highly processed samples based on the plucked piano, which composers may find of greater or lesser use. 

For those thinking purely in terms of sound design, layering these various “Pluckospheres,” with or without the standard sample, can yield immediately interesting results. The classical composer who is looking to create mock-ups of pieces including plucked piano will certainly find this tool very useful, while film and media composers will simply lap these ethereal sounds right up.    

The Hg20 instrument is, according to Spitfire’s website demo, a “set of samples performed… [on] a metallic atonal acoustic musical instrument consisting of a stainless steel resonator bowl or pan with a cylindrical neck and bronze rods of different lengths and diameters around the rim of the bowl. The resonator may contain a small amount of water giving the instrument a vibrant ethereal sound…” 

Vibrant and ethereal it is. The layers in each sample and round robin programming allow the composer or user to vary volume beautifully while really hearing (in bowed samples) the timbral difference that results from various bowing pressures. 


SEE RELATED: IRCAM Prepared Piano: A virtual ‘prepared piano’ at your finger tips


The Hg20 library includes bowed, struck, and plucked samples, along with hand sweeps, brushes, and various bowed techniques such as fast sweeps, which lead to a sound resembling a traditional waterphone. (Those who wish to sample some of these sounds may browse the useful sample video created by Spitfire, embedded at the conclusion of this article.) 

Like the plucked piano, included in this package is a potentially useful folder of resampled and digitally modified Hg20 samples.

While this particular sample library may not have any real use for traditional composers seeking sounds for their mockups, it does have some real sound design potential. For instance some truly beautiful sounds were quickly achieved by layering plucked Hg20 samples with slower bowed samples, while the effect was further magnified by layering in good legato string patches from another library, let alone attacks from Spitfire’s own Plucked Piano library. In a film or media context, the ability to immediately conjure such moody atmospheric touches would be invaluable.

If there is one complaint to be leveled at Spitfire, it is their requirement that you purchase the full version of their Kontakt product (retail $399.00) to run these packages.  For those who have built their libraries away from the Kontakt platform, it will indeed be frustrating not to be able to access these vibrant packages without another significant investment of time and money. Although the free version of Kontakt will indeed open these libraries, it disables the samples after 15 minutes of use. 

For those who already own Kontakt 4 or 5, the “Plucked Piano Library” – priced at £25 (approximately $41 U.S.) – is an utter steal. The “Hg20” library costs slightly more, but it is still a bargain buy for those Kontakt users seeking a radically different palette of sounds to add to their collection. 

Were it not for the expensive Kontakt requirement, each product could have come closer to earning 4 stars in this review. Given Spitfire’s model of originality, it would indeed be interesting to see what a hypothetical stand-alone Spitfire player might look like.

An exciting newcomer to the increasingly competitive sampled instrument market, Spitfire’s more human and direct approach to sampling (and customer service) has lead to a refreshingly different product and presentation.  With their competitively priced instruments and their generous 30% student discount, younger composers who are just starting to build their sample libraries may find a great deal to like about Spitfire Audio. 

Product Ratings: 

Spitfire Plucked Piano: *** ½  (3.5 out of 4 stars)
Spitire Hg20: *** (3 out of 4 stars)


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Mark Nowakowski

 

Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a composer whose works have been performed across the United States and Europe. He holds five degrees in various music concentrations, while currently
also serving as the Music Curator and Interim Director for the Foundation for Sacred Arts.

Contact Mark Nowakowski

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