21
Dec
2020
19:41

BBC Symphony Orchestra Plugin Review

For those who want to skip straight to the conclusion: It’s insanely powerful, with some amazing sounds, but has been a bit of a mixed bag with me. Some technical snafus as well as their “No refunds after downloading” policy will likely keep me from buying any other Spitfire Audio products. Now on to the details.

I first learned of the BBC Symphony Orchestra plugin from a Tik Tok video talking about how you can get the “Discover” edition for free so I had to check it out. In a strange model, you can indeed get it for free by filling out a form, but you won’t get it until two weeks after you’ve filled it out. Seemed weird to me in this digital age. However, this got me going down the rabbit hole of checking it out and reading about it and I decided to take the plunge and get the “Professional” edition (Normally $1000 it was on sale for $600 at the time I bought it). For years I have used Reason for all my orchestral needs (as well as all general keyboard needs and much more). While it had done a reasonably good job (pun intended), BBCSO sounded like it would be a vast improvement. Far more realism than Reason could provide. Reason has a lot of different sounds, but one thing I always fought with was the fact that sometimes the different sounds sounded way too different, so it didn’t sound like a cohesive orchestra. One string or horn patch would have a vastly different sound from another so mixing and matching was tough.

The more I read about BBCSO the more I thought it sounded like the perfect solution for the ultimate all-in-one orchestra plugin. While the Discover or Core editions might be fine for a lot of folks, I wanted the Pro edition with all the instruments and techniques at my disposal. I decided to take the plunge and buy it. As I began to download the 600GB library, I almost immediately started to get buyer’s remorse as it was only then that I learned of their newest orchestra plugin, Abbey Road One. At first I thought maybe I should have purchased that one for various reasons, but then the more I looked into it, the more I think BBCSO was more to my liking. Far more options (the BBCSO library is almost 10x larger than the ARO library). Since Spitfire Audio has a “No refunds after downloading” policy, it’s a good thing I decided my choice was for the best as I was stuck with it either way. This policy will likely keep me from buying anything from Spitfire in the future, unfortunately, especially after some of the troubles I would have. There was a point where I thought I was stuck with a $600 plugin that could not render clean audio. More on that to come.

After letting it download overnight, I got to playing in my DAW of choice, Reaper. First impressions were astounding. So many options for instruments and techniques. I had very high hopes for getting the most realistic orchestra sounds possible. While ARO is organized more generally into instruments like “High Strings” and “Low Strings,” BBCSO is organized into true orchestra sections. Violins 1, Violins 2, Violas, Basses, etc. This may require you to think and compose very differently. In the past, I would pick more general patches and often play chords and layer parts as necessary to get the sound I was going for. With BBCSO, you really need to compose things like you would for an orchestra. Especially considering one of the most powerful and expressive techniques, the “Legato” is monophonic by necessity. Individual notes will have individual attacks, but by holding one note and playing another you will will get a smoother “legato” transition between notes. Depending on the instrument there are sometimes other tricks like being able to get “Portamento” between notes (which I loved but found very hard to trigger with live playing as you have hold down one note and play the second note with a velocity of less than 20). The interface is really well done and has contextual information available all the time which is great if, like me, a lot of these terms are unfamiliar at first. I knew the basics but had never heard of things like “Col Legno” or “Bartok Pizzicato” but a quick look at the manual, or at the contextual help info in the “Edit Techniques” menu provided explanations. So composing will likely take more time and effort but will yield much better results. To get a string “chord” for example, you will likely have Violins 1 play one line, Violins 2 play another line, and Violas play a third line, which would be common in an orchestra. Using other techniques, you can play polyphonic chords if it works for your workflow, but I tried to keep it “real.” For example, a horn can’t play a chord. It can only play single notes though sometimes a horn section might play “Divisi” where some players in the section play one note and other play a different note. Strings can only play single notes or double-stops (two note chords). Learning a little about orchestras and how they play and how to compose parts for them will really help out. I’m still pretty new to it but am self-educating to have a better understanding.

My first test was simply to test the limits of this plugin with my new PC. I have 64GB of RAM with an AMD Ryzen 7 3700X 8-Core 3.59 GHz Processor. Could I actually get a full orchestra up and running? You have to run a separate instance of the plugin on a separate track for each section or instrument you want. I started out light just trying to get 5 to 10 tracks of strings going. I was immediately met with problems of audio dropouts. This didn’t bode well. I thought, “Well surely it will render fine even if it can’t keep up live.” Nope. Same audio dropouts in rendering which was baffling to me. I opened support tickets and got to experimenting.

After much troubleshooting (and much gratitude for my background and experience in Quality Assurance and technical troubleshooting jobs), I found the “Preload Size” setting to be the critical one for me. By increasing that setting you tell it to load more samples into memory immediately upon loading which increases RAM usage but decreases disk access which is slower. At first I had the library on my 7200 RPM HDD because neither of my internal SSDs had enough room left to handle a 600GB library. I immediately ordered another internal SATA SSD drive (faster than the HDD but not as fast my M.2 internal SSDs) to be my dedicated BBCSO drive. After transferring the library to my new SSD and using the very important “Optimise” option in the Spitfire Audio installation app, my library load times went from excruciatingly slow to only slightly annoyingly slow. Again, this library is massive, and each time you load a section, you have to wait for the plugin’s virtual LED to stop flashing which means it’s completely loaded. Loading up my full orchestra project with 40 tracks took about 8 minutes. Once I had increased my Preload Size from the default 12288 to 100000 I seemed to have no more performance or rendering issues. I then shuffled some files around and moved the library from my internal 2.5″ SATA SSD drive to one of the internal M.2 SSD drives and was shocked when my first load time took longer, and my second one was about the same as I got on the 2.5″ SATA SSD drive. Not sure why that is as I expected it to be much faster on the M.2 drive. However, with the library now on my fastest possible drive (internal M.2 SSD), I could not longer replicate any of the dropout problems even with the Preload Size set to it’s absolute minimum of 1000. I was frustrated at not being able to replicate the issues for the support team, but happy that my library seemed to be working great now.

I have to say I am still corresponding with support as this still baffles me. No other plugin I’ve ever used ever had problems with rendering or “printing” the audio. Usually your only concern is how much live processing you can do due to CPU, disk, or RAM limitations, but offline rendering was always the safe zone no matter how weak your computer was. Mine is a new and fairly powerful PC and I initially could not get a usable render without upping the Preload Size setting. This worries me as I wonder how it’s possible to get a clean render with a lesser computer or if I use enough tracks to surpass my RAM and only have a slower drive. I don’t think I’d even try to use this plugin with anything less than an SSD (I’d love to hear if anyone has successfully used this on a 7200RPM HDD), however it doesn’t seem to me like any internal settings should affect the ability to offline render clean audio. Also worth noting is that the plugin has its own CPU, Disk, and RAM meters that are the total usage across all instances. The loading LED is also across all instances so it’s not whether that individual track is still loading samples, it’s whether any instance of BBCSO is still loading samples.

So once I was able to actually use the plugin and render usable audio, I decided to start with a workflow/Proof Of Concept test just to dip my toes in. I created a project with almost every instrument available (I didn’t use any of the soloists/leaders and I didn’t use every single percussion or “Toys” option). I slapped down some sloppy parts on every track just for fun, not at all worrying about actual musicality, mixing, or anything like that, resulting in this bit of mad, orchestral chaos.

Reaper Project Image
Here is the BBCSO Test Project I Recorded

This project uses almost all my 64GB of RAM using only the “Mix 1” mic option and with all the default techniques (which I believe is all of them). Now that I knew I could use the plugin and render audio, I moved on to another test project. I decided to make a fully instrumental version of “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles.

BBCSO Eleanor Rigby Reaper Project
My Reaper project for my “Eleanor Rigby” test recording.

Again, it was a pretty quick and dirty test project though I spent a little more time with this one trying to get it to sound at least close to a finished project. I went far more in depth with this one. I set up the various techniques to be triggered by certain keys down low not in use by the actual instruments. This way I could hit a C1 to switch to “Legato,” C#1 for “Long” E1 for “Spicato,” etc. Another quirk you will have to work around is that there are great volume differences between different techniques on the same instrument, and to a lesser degree, the different instruments. So I found that when I switched from Legato to Staccato, I also needed to bring “Expression” (level of the technique) down by either manually drawing in automation for that or recording automation for that parameter which I had assigned to a knob on one of my controllers. I found I had to do a good amount of various parameter automations both for taste and style but also for consistent volume. The “Dynamics” parameter is mapped to my keyboard’s Mod Wheel by default and depending on the technique being used and some other preference settings can also control dynamics or velocity. There are many other details of the sound you can adjust in real time using mapped controllers, manually drawn envelopes, automation, etc. Another one I used in this particular test was adjusting the vibrato on certain notes. Most of Eleanor Rigby has no vibrato (they recorded two versions, one with vibrato and one without and opted to use the one without), but there were definitely a few places I distinctly heard it and therefore turned it on. While the parameter has a whole range in the plugin, to me it sounded like it was either on or off at the halfway point, at least on the instruments and techniques where I used it.

I started by trying to record the strings like they did. An octet playing like a quartet. 8 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos. I loaded up 2 each of “Violins 1 Leader,” “Violins 2 Leader,” “Violas Leader,” and “Celli Leader.” I knew they also close mic’d the strings which was super weird back in their day. The string players even kept saying “You’re not supposed to do that” and kept trying to back their chairs away form the mics until George Martin told them to quit it, so I mixed the “Close” mic option all the way up with the standard Orchestra mix as well (instead of adding some reverb later). Then I replaced all the vocals with various soloists from different sections.

When I was done, I still heard more artificial sample weirdness in a few parts than I had expected to. I also found that even with all the techniques included, sometimes nothing worked quite right. I was particularly disappointed in the Violin 1 Leader Legato, which should likely be the most outstanding sound in this library but when playing those iconic solo lines, just ended up sounding very artificial to me. I found the Horn legato a bit hard to use as well as there is such a slow attack and transition into the body of the note that it ends up sounding a bit odd. Often the “Long” technique sounds more even but then much less smooth in other ways than the “Legato.” Also there’s no way for the Trombones to slide! No portamento technique! You gotta be able to slide a trombone!

Overall, I’m still quite impressed. It doesn’t quite live up to what I had hoped it would be, but I feel it’s like most cases of using sampling libraries in that you just have to learn the tools at your disposal, strengths, weaknesses, and how to best use them to get the best results. I’ll be the first to admit that some of the shortcomings could very well be my fault as it’s still new to me and perhaps I just haven’t learned how to massage all the nuances. Maybe a real Horn soloist would sound like that. I’ve never worked with a real orchestra.

In the end, I find myself somewhat middling in my willingness to recommend it. I certainly wouldn’t warn against it and would likely recommend it to friends with some caveats. I would definitely say get the free Discover version first as that’s the only way to try out even a very stripped down version. Again, I think it’s very important to note, that once you have purchased and downloaded it, there are no refunds, at least according to their website. Supposedly you can get a refund within 14 days if you have not downloaded it, which seems fairly useless to me since you won’t know if you like it or if you’ll encounter many problems like I did until you’ve downloaded it.

I’m also concerned about the fact that their attention seems to be all in on the Abbey Road One line now. They’ve talked about that line being the future with more modular expansions to come to hopefully fit individual tastes whether you want to eventually have the full micro-management control of BBCSO Pro, or the easier ability to quickly sketch out sounds with simpler ensemble groups. I just hope this doesn’t leave BBCSO as an abandoned child who gets no more future development. Only time will tell!

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