There is truly no shortage of samples, sample-based instruments, both free and paid.
However, when it comes to orchestral sample libraries it can be hard to find something truly useful and it’s even more difficult to find something that is both useful and unique.
Other entries in their product line – like BBC Symphony Orchestra are considered to be one of the best Orchestral virtual instruments available, though as with most it comes with a hefty price tag of $999.
Spitfire LABS is Spitfire Audio’s completely free entry intro to the market – not including their free option for BBC’s Symphony Orchestra that requires a waiting period of two weeks.
Spitfire describes LABS as “An infinite series of free software instruments, made by musicians and experts in London, for anyone, anywhere”.
So, how close to their promise is this? Surprisingly close.
The user interface found in Spitfire Audio’s LAB is fairly simple and straightforward which makes sense because, at its core, the samples are the main draw.
What makes it different from other “simpler” samplers is the ease of access to different articulations, dynamics, and effects like reverb.
There are three main controls when it comes to LABS – the slider furthest left is the articulation slider. This helps add a human touch to the instrument.
The slider right next to it – dynamics – represents how hard each hit is played, and this can feel somewhat like a volume slider.
Moving either one of these all the way down completely cuts off the sound. But also, at the top right, you have a master volume slider.
The dynamics slider does do something not a whole lot of samplers let you do though, and that’s crossfading the velocities – allowing for slightly different textures to emerge, though it doesn’t outright change what the sound is.
Since this is a sampler, most patches will have an ADSR section hidden under the big knob of the interface. Clicking on this opens an effects/ADSR settings panel.
In this panel, you can change a few things, but if you will find most other elements are still fixed in place.
This means that if you aren’t feeling that particular reverb in a patch then you may be better off using another stock or third-party plugin in conjunction with LABS to get more in-depth with your sound design.
I don’t think that the lack of options to change parameters is a complete killer as most of the sounds sound awesome as-is, though there are samplers that offer much more control.
I do however find myself wishing there was a way to switch between the actually playable articulations. That is after all that you would think the articulation slider did right? There are some wonderful samples in this collection but there’s no easy way to articulate playing.
In Kontakt’s Session Strings, users are able to use a plethora of articulations like sustain, crescendos up and down, portamento, pizzicato, and staccato to name a few. Even in Spitfire’s BBC Symphony Orchestra you have way more options (fair enough as it’s a premium product, but it still shows it can be done).
The Samples (8/10)
The collection of samples available on an instrument like this will make or break it.
Most of these sounds – if not all of them – have a gritty, grainy texture that feels like a call back to sampling old records. This may or may not be intentional, but it’s a plus if you like vintage sounding strings.
Genre-wise, these samples cater to all manners of hip hop, boom bap, EDM, and even pop.
While, yes, you may find drums, pads, guitars, horns, and leads, I don’t think many of these sounds will be the focal point of a song right out of the box. Not at least to the same degree of samples you’d get in Komplete, a Splice subscription, or from one of the other many sound or synth manufacturers.
The gritty and grainy texture of most of the sounds seems almost ripped out of a lofi track which may very well be the thing you are looking for. Though it may not be what you are always looking for.
Across the board, all of the sounds more or less have an equal volume throughout and sound very pleasant. It’s not like when you’re flipping through patches in Serum and the volume goes all over the place.
There’s that extra bit of quality assurance at the end that gives it a polished sound you don’t see with other samplers.
Samplers like Kontakt have user-generated libraries available for you to download and purchase. This leads to levels being all over the place making you scramble to turn down the fader before you blow out your super expensive monitors or headphones!
Overall, I find these sounds to be like those random spices in the kitchen like that you only sometimes use.
A producer could definitely integrate this into their workflow should they need more than the stock horn and strings found in their DAW – which, let’s just admit, most DAW’s strings and horns suites are kind of lacking in the authenticity department.
So really, this is the best part of Spitfire LABS. You get great sounding strings and other instruments for free! Just don’t expect them to be the most realistic sounding if you are after extensive articulation.
The Sampler Itself (5/10)
The sampler in itself leaves much to be desired in my opinion.
While there are some manipulation capabilities in there, when compared to something like an MPC, Maschine, or even most stock samplers/sequencers found in DAWs, it falls a bit short.
I get that this is not the main focus of LABS. As I mentioned, the actual sounds themselves are the most important element and everything else is secondary. But there are still times when these limitations stop you from getting the most out of the sounds.
For example, users only have access to whatever FX the sound designer for that patch decided on. There’s no simple way to replace it other than killing off that effect entirely and supplementing it with your own stock or third-party plugin.
Users may or may not have an ADSR panel hiding behind the big knob as mentioned earlier, and this inconsistency is frustrating. I don’t understand why some features are available on some patches but not on others. To me, that kind of knee caps this product from a sound design standpoint.
The user interface of LABS has quite a bit of empty space which leaves us with a clean-looking interface – but that’s about it.
This sort of layout is actually really successfully used in their BBC Symphony product but LABS confusingly fails in utilizing the interface and its sliders in the same sort of meaningful way here.
I almost feel like some of the empty space could have been used providing a few more features to let producers dial in their own sound.
Tools like Output’s Arcade not only give users samples, but the sampler tool itself is one of the most powerful out there thanks to the stutters and time stretches available right from the keyboard. It’s a different type of product but it also shows how attention to the sampler instrument itself can really extend the creative possibilities.
For many, the number of parameters available on the sampler won’t matter as long as they have access to strings and other orchestral sounds for free. But if you like to manipulate your instruments, you’ll find the options here pretty limited.
Value For Money (9/10)
Obviously, this is where LABS makes up for all of its shortcomings – it’s totally free, and is ever-growing. It would be unfair to judge LABS side-by-side with other contenders without taking cost into account.
If you’re getting paid thousands of dollars to write scores, you’ll want to take some of that money and invest in a fully-featured Kontakt library. But if you just need some quick and easy strings, organs, and pianos, LABS will have you covered.
Why didn’t I give it 10/10 if it’s a free product? Simply because there are better free instruments out there that give you even more. But you’d still be hard-pressed to find a free collection of sampled instruments this good.
But if you already have some string samples lying around, I think you might even have better results using a sample and your DAW’s native sampler. It gives users more control over these awesome sounds in the form of more effects, and ADSRs that are available to users at any time.
Heck, I’m sure if the effects were innovative enough people wouldn’t mind subscribing to something like this – provided they also keep pumping out samples.
Upgrade the Articulation Engine
There is very little sonic difference between the various articulations, and sometimes it feels like the articulation slider functions more like a volume slider.
This is another victim of their clean user interface, easily solved by labels popping up when a cursor hovers over it – much like so many other plugins.
Another gripe is that since the samples tend to have a lofi quality to them, those articulations aren’t as easy to hear unless you’re doing some extra processing that you couldn’t do otherwise inside of LABS.
I do not think this is inherently a “bad” product and I would strongly suggest you check it out first because there’s chance that it really works well for you.
The cynical side of me feels as though LABS is made up of the parts that were leftover from their premium instruments.
It’s great for a free product but I don’t think it’s a serious contender in the sound design space in the same way that Kontakt libraries or Spectrasonics instruments are.
There are no rules when it comes to music. I used LABS on three songs while I was learning it, though it was always in a smaller capacity. I believe this product has potential but it may need some direction.
Where their other entries shine is just how usable the sounds are right out of the box and just how “real” they sound. While they still sound “real” to some extent, they’re just not as usable as “real” instruments compared to their paid counterparts.
Using LABS makes sense from a financial standpoint, but not so much from a longevity standpoint. Producers after quick-and-easy royalty-free instrument samples will no doubt enjoy LABS, but anyone after serious orchestral sounds with full articulation potential will quickly want to move on to something more substantial.
I like the sounds, but I personally would have been happier just having the wave files to play with in a sampler. That’s because we all work differently, and you may still find LABS excellent for what you do. I’d suggest you try it out and make up your own mind, just don’t go into it expecting the most in-depth and professional sampling experience.
Ultimately, what it does, it does well, just your mileage may vary as to how useful you find it.