How to Compose with Spitfire Audio LABS

If I had to sum up this review in one sentence, that would be: I cannot believe they’re giving this stuff away for free. That’s right, North London-based Spitfire Audio, who are used by, and collaborate with the likes of Hans Zimmer, Ólafur Arnalds, and Eric Whitacre, and whose sample libraries can be heard in major Hollywood movies, are giving a selection of high-quality virtual instruments away for free.

As a composer myself, I’ve always been set on using Spitfire, and LABS gave me the excuse I didn’t need to dive right in and try it out for myself. This review is coming from the point of view of someone using Spitfire for the very first time. The LABS name stands for ‘Let’s All Become Something’, and I’m very, very impressed with what my empty Logic Pro X project became within a mere 20 minutes of giving this a go.

Firstly, there’s no sweat when it comes to installing the instruments. Download the [also free] Spitfire desktop app, and then your LABS downloads will automatically appear there, ready to install when you download each instrument. Once you’ve done that, the LABS website has a video for each eventuality, whether you’re on Logic, Cubase, Ableton, and so on, to get you set up in under 60 seconds.

I had a good browse through the instruments on offer — there’s a generous selection. Choose from a vintage electric piano (Electric Piano), Choir (sampled from the Eric Whitacre singers), the Charango, and lots more. What excited me, however, was the quick realisation that LABS offers enough sounds to quickly craft a neo-classical piano/strings piece in the Icelandic style of Ólafur Arnalds, so with that in mind, I opted for Frozen Strings (an apt name), Soft Piano, and Synth Pads.

Soft Piano blew me away the most, although admittedly I’m biased, being a pianist myself. But the warmth and character of the sound is just ludicrously realistic. Most composers agree that we must always record with real acoustic instruments when possible, but these days, it’s all too common that a project just won’t have the budget for a string quartet, space for a real piano, etc. So in that situation, Spitfire isn’t just adequate, it’s outrageously close to the real thing. Soft Piano is sampled from a piano’s strings being covered by a thin layer of felt, softening the fall of the hammers on the strings. Originally made popular by Nils Frahm on his acclaimed album, Felt, the recording technique is now widely used by composers in film music, recordings, and even pop music.

Once again, I was instantly content with the sound when I pressed my keys: an ethereal synth pad that I would use to lead into the entrance of the strings and piano.

When I interviewed Ólafur Arnalds, he told me how much he appreciated Spitfire’s common sense, musician’s approach to sampling. For example, he had encountered a felt piano sample from a different company, which gave you the option of turning up the volume of the creaking sound of the piano stool, even being able to have that louder than the piano itself. He’s right in valuing Spitfire placing all the emphasis on the quality and warmth of the piano sound, rather than silly bells and whistles. It sounds incredible right off the bat, but you can tweak the reverb if you like.

Once acclimatised to the Soft Piano (and slightly disturbed by the fact that it might sound nicer than the upright piano in my living room), I decided to use the Synth Pads to open the piece. As you’d expect, the Pads are much more tweakable than the Piano, but once again, I was instantly content with the sound when I pressed my keys. An ethereal synth pad that I would use to lead into the entrance of the strings and piano. I held a sustained chord, just a few notes were all I needed for a wonderful backdrop throughout the piece.

That being said, the Pads are pretty versatile — you can create an arpeggiator, and more percussive synth sounds. There’s more than enough to create an entirely electronic piece — it really is a mad amount of value for a free download. As with the piano, these were created using Spitfire-founder Christian Henson’s synthesiser collection: five vintage synths sent through reverb, guitar pedals, and a selection of outboard gear.

I overlayed the pad with some improvised piano playing, and fell in love with the charming sounds left in the sample; the hammers delicately hitting the strings, and the piano pedal, add so much. The attention to detail and the painstaking process of recording and then sampling just oozes out when you play the Frozen Piano. I open the piece with a more rhythmic motif, and then end with chords, and plenty of breathing space in between — and the piano works perfectly for both.

It’s then time to add the Frozen Strings, which are just so icy and atmospheric. With headphones in, it’s almost as if there’s a violin player directly next you, placing the fretboard right by your ear. To get that ‘frozen’ effect (and we’re not talking about the animated Disney musical here), the string players deliberately in a cold style — little romantic vibrato, more haunting swells.

If you’re after a big strings sound, there are other options in LABS. But just as I’d hoped, the Frozen Strings play so delicately. They couldn’t pair more perfectly with Soft Piano or Synth Pads. Again, I’m pleased to say Spitfire keep it simple, but you can, of course, choose between violins, cellos, haunting harmonics, and then there’s the ‘super sul tasto’ playing style, where the bow barely touches the strings, for a wonderfully ethereal effect. With all this in mind, it’s maybe not that surprising that I had a full-sounding instrumental piece done and dusted in under 20 minutes.

I hate to toot my own horn, but I’d like to think that if a film director had asked for an urgent new musical cue within the hour, they might be pleased with the results. Certainly, no question of them asking whether I used real instrumentation or not. I strongly urge you to head into the LABS yourself — there’s clearly nothing to lose. Hats off to Spitfire Audio for this generosity, but more so, the eagle-eyed attention to detail and evident love of the sampling process.

Review by Adam Protz