Crudebyte caused quite a stir back in August when their iSymphonic Orchestra app was launched. The app’s blurb promised a lot and, while the sounds in the initial release were most certainly very impressive, it perhaps wasn’t until the first update for the app appeared in November, that it perhaps started to deliver on the obvious potential of the sample playback engine.
At UK£37.99, iSymphonic Orchestra was never going to be a causal purchase for the majority of iOS musicians. However, the update added a collection of additional sounds (expanding upon the 10 original patches) plus an IAP that offered a further 19 instruments and included some nice brass and woodwind patches. Given the price point, you still have to be pretty serious about your iOS orchestral sounds, but iSymphonic does sound very good indeed if you can justify the initial investment.
Crudebyte have obviously put some considerable work into the sample playback engine that iSymphonic Orchestra is built upon and, quite understandably, are keen to make good use of that engine for other sample-based virtual instruments. So, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, further apps using the same app framework, but featuring different sample sets, have now been launched.
The first of these – and the subject of this review – is Oriental Strings. This uses the same interface/engine as iSymphonic but, in this case – and as suggested by the app’s title – we get a collection of string-based instruments with an eastern flavour. Incidentally, a further app – iCathedral Organ (UK£39.99) – is now also available using the same underlying engine but with some interesting additions to provide the controls required to tweak the organ sounds.
A total of 32 patches are included in the app and these are mostly different oriental string ensembles with different performance articulations. If you want to add a touch of Arabic/Middle Eastern sound to your music, then this is obviously going to be an interesting option.
As before, the app includes IAA support, and will work on a iPad running iOS7 or higher. MIDI support is included as is support for Crudebyte’s own JACK audio connection technology… but not Audiobus. As with iSymphonic, the app is priced at UK£39.99, although there are no further IAPs to add… you get access to all the features with a single purchase.
However, if the app does appeal, even if only tangentially, now might be a good time to take a punt; at the time of writing, the app is over 80% off and can be picked up for just UK£7.99. Yes, strings tinged with an eastern flavour might be a bit of a niche product amongst iOS music makers, but if the quality of the sounds matches that of iSymphonic, then this will undoubtedly represent good value for money.
While the iCatherdral Organ app does have some additional interface features over and above those found in iSymphonic, for Oriental Strings, the feature set, and the way the app operates, are pretty much identical to the iSymphonic release. I’ll not repeat these details here therefore; simply head over to the iSymphonic Orchestra review and catch up… although do keep in mind that iSymphonic also got a fairly substantive update after the initial review… I’ll wait here until you are ready :-)
So, engine aside, the key difference here is the sample set. Some 32 patches are included within the app and, at 1.9GB is size, you need to be sure your iPad has a suitable amount of free space available before you decide to hit the download button.
The 32 patches cover a number of different instruments and/or instrument groups. These include the Chinese Erhu, Turkish Strings, Arabian Strings, Tremolo Strings, Spiccato Strings, Oriental Stings Quartet, Arabian Solo Strings and Oriental String Ensembles. In most cases, there are three or four different patches within a category and each patch features a somewhat different tonality or articulation.
The Erhu obviously brings its own, very specific, flavour to proceedings. The sound is somewhat less pure than a standard western string instrument but, when played here, it has an instant sad, melancholic, tonal quality and creates an obviously ‘non-western’ mood. The ‘trill’ patch is the prime example here.
However, the majority of the rest of the patches, while many of them imply Turkish or Arabian styles, do sound more like a standard string group. Indeed, Crudebyte do say that standard western instruments were included in the recordings but the players involved where experienced in oriental playing styles.
While I’ve done some ‘virtual orchestral’ writing in the past, and used a number of the better desktop-based orchestral string libraries in doing so, I’d certainly not make any claim to be an expert it oriental string sounds. However, to my ears, where these samples seem to differ most compared to the string patches within the iSymphonic Orchestra app is in the intensity of the playing. While iSymphonic includes sounds that can be used to create gentle, slow moving, passages, the majority of the patches found within Oriental Strings seem much more strident and intense. These strike me as samples to write dramatic, forceful music with…
I’ve no idea if this more forceful tone/style was the intention, although what little I do know of orchestral music from that region (mainly from film scores) does suggest it might have been. Either way, it provides a nice contrast to iSymphonic and, while I wouldn’t have objected to just a touch more ‘obviously exotic and oriental’ in some of the sounds, given that the basic essences of the two libraries are not so far removed, it does mean that they can actually work rather well together.
Indeed, I did try a few experiments with both apps running side-by-side (and sequenced from Cubasis with both apps loaded onto MIDI tracks via IAA). Intended or not, what I did like was the fact that Oriental Strings gave you some rather useful extra options when you wanted to create more forceful, high-tempo phrases. This can be an area where sample-based orchestral parts (in more budget libraries at least) can leave you wanting. Here, there is some pretty fast attacks in some of the patches that makes faster lines much easier to pull off.
And, while I didn’t push this combination of apps to any extremes, with a few patches running between them, my iPad Air 1 test system seemed to cope fairly happily.
If I already owned iSymphonic Orchestra (which, given its fairly hefty price tag in iOS music app terms, suggests a commitment to wanting the best orchestral sounds currently available for the iPad), with Oriental Strings currently available as such a heavy discount at the time of writing, I’d be very tempted to snap it up and see it almost as an add-on to my existing string patch options.
While I might quite have liked (and perhaps, in my ignorance of the genre, incorrectly expected?) to hear something just a bit more exotic in Oriental Strings, it actually complements the sounds within iSymphonic Orchestra very well. For dedicated fans needing the best string sounds iOS can currently offer, Oriental Strings is a great addition to you existing iSymphonic palette.
I was (perhaps falsely?) expecting to be transported instantly to the east when I started auditioning Oriental Strings. I was, but perhaps not quite as firmly as I thought I might have been. However, what I did get – and came as a surprise (but perhaps shouldn’t have done) – was just how well these sounds worked alongside iSymphonic. This is a separate app but you could quite easily think of is as the ‘Oriental expansion pack’ if you are already an iSymphonic user.
One further thing is worth stating. Whatever your take on the full pricing of either iSymphonic Orchestra or Oriental Strings, or the lack of support for Audiobus in either app (although I’d choose the IAA route anyway when sequencing from within Cubasis), if you are someone you relies on string sounds for your compositions rather than a collection of virtual synth sounds, in terms of sample quality and depth, these two apps are the best collections of string sounds you can currently get for iOS.
In terms of the breadth of sounds and the range or performance articulations, for sample-based orchestral composers, the iPad and iOS can’t really compete with what’s possible of a well-specified, desktop-based computer system. However, Crudebyte are doing their best to take us in that direction and, for iOS musicians who also happen to be dedicated string fans, at the current sale price, Oriental Strings is a very tempting proposition.