Garritan Instant Orchestra reviewed

July 28, 2014

The chance to review Garritan Instant Orchestra was a welcome opportunity, as the entire premise behind it is such a necessity for so many modern musicians. It’s a high-quality library (actually, more like a self-contained virtual instrument) of ready-to-go orchestral combinations and soundscapes. Instead of you having to load and blend dozens of multisamples, articulations, and solo instruments, the developers have taken care of that for you with pre-made ensembles, helping you get to the act of creating music all that sooner. On top of that, Garritan keeps both the storage footprint and the price low, while packing a big wallop sonically.


Garritan Instant Orchestra (GIO from here on) covers the gamut of orchestral sounds from big brass and strings to pitched percussion and mallets, and everything in between. The stars of the show are the Ensemble Presets, which are pre-programmed multis made up of Instrument Patches, and further divided into two sub-folders: Combos & FX, and Moods. You can access Instrument Patches individually, and of course, craft your own multis from them, but it’s important to note that these “patches” are mainly combinations of instruments themselves—just more focused ones. GIO’s marketing is very clear that its purpose is to get you from fingers-on-keyboard to finished cue in minimum time, and to do this, it relegates solo instruments to a different product in Garritan’s line: Personal Orchestra. There are exceptions, including piano, pipe organ, celesta, and harpsichord, but you’ll need to look in GPO or elsewhere for something like that lilting Game of Thrones solo cello.

Of the Instrument Patches, those classified as Blending Textures map your MIDI controller’s modulation wheel to crossfade between two different characters or even families of instruments (say, woodwinds and harp). In fact, many Ensembles and Instruments make great use of the mod wheel to bring in more layers, as denoted by the suffix “MW” in the program name.

All of this runs in Garritan’s proprietary playback engine, called Aria, which provides 16 channels of mixing as well as a number of useful sound parameters and effects. These include an ADSR envelope, lowpass and highpass filters, three-band EQ with sweepable midrange, vibrato, and a “stereo stage” adjustment that overrides manual panning with a soundstage based on virtual stereo mic placement (see Figure 1 at left). There’s also a nice send-based reverb in the form of an “Ambience” section with several lovely presets.


Downloading and installing Garritan Instant Orchestra was easy. It weighs in at around 2GB, compared to 30GB for the next smallest orchestral library on my hard drive, and upwards of 200GB for some of my very high-end stuff. Activation was also easy. The “key card” authorization was new to me at first: After downloading, you enter a code to retrieve a PNG file that you then drag onto the GIO screen, and you’re good to go (see Figure 2 at left). 

I installed GIO on my new studio computer, but as I was leaving for a month of touring I’d mainly be working on my older “road laptop,” which has a 2.4GHz processor and just 4GB of RAM—though it does run off a solid-state drive I installed recently. I thought it that working on a slightly slower computer would be a good test of GIO’s power needs. I’m happy to report that on my first try I was able to pull up a dozen instances of GIO at once with no problems.


In Use


Once I had everything installed, I was ready to hit the road. I had begun my foray into GIO rather clinically, reading through the manual. It’s a great read, written like a primer on what Hollywood composers do and how GIO’s features relate.

But having just gotten off an airplane, as soon as I got settled I felt like going off the grid without their tutelage to see just how intuitive GIO and its underlying Aria sample playback engine were. I dove in and immediately got into the mood to make “spy music.” I loaded up a reverb-heavy tympani and went for it. 

Very quickly I went for the Ensemble Presets “Journey Out to Sea” and “The Jungle” from the Moods bank, and “Wowsers Piano Effect” from the Combos & FX Bank. The end result was a totally fun drama sequence assembled in much less time than it would have taken to load every layer of each pad manually, not to mention the time needed to audition and assign effects and do the proper blending. Listen to audio clip 1, “Garritan the Spy” (in the SoundCloud player at the bottom of this article) to hear what I mean.

My second session started with a very slow string dirge on top of which I added two different tracks of random snare hits. The classical-style snares in the “Lots of Snares” patch have a very natural, open, mellow tone. Using one part without the snares engaged and the other with tight snares resulted in a nice blend. While experimenting with GIO’s modulation wheel mapping, I also found that the snare rolls work great when massaging volume in real time with the mod wheel. With small pulses of the wheel, it sounds very human. (Listen to audio clip 2 below)

Then, some heavy tympani from the “Percussion Wow” patch gave it great motion. A rhythmic ostinato made of marimba and glockenspiel from the “Pitched Percussives” patch was a nice touch as well. It was finished with some low-end wash from the “Ghost Ship” patch and an expressive high string line from “Grand or Dark,” which also makes great use of the built-in modulation wheel blending. 

The high string line was played in real time with the expressiveness of a live string take. I was able to roll in brightness and volume with the modulation wheel pre-assigned. It was a relief to be able to bring in volume and tonal nuances with just one sweep—without having to map assignments for things like layer volume and brightness myself. Sometimes MIDI is a four-letter word, and GIO really took some of the headaches away.

Since I had such an easy time loading usable presets from the Moods and Combos banks, I decided to start from scratch on a blank palette. I had a quick idea for a motion sequence that called for a mixture of marimba, glockenspiel, and pizzicato strings (see Figure 3 at left). 

Within a couple of minutes everything was loaded. I balanced the levels on the mixer screen and added a touch of the reverb from the built-in “Ambience” effect. All the better, I had a cool custom sound created and saved before I forgot my idea! I then added some light percussion from the Instrument patch “Percussion Extras” and was now ready to experiment with the “Trill Exchange” Ensemble that I’d noticed in the Combos & FX bank. 

This was an interesting one, and definitely not for your average love ballad. Each note is an ominous swelling string trill that peaks into something fitting for a horror scene or a whodunnit, and then calms down into a slow, decaying, sustained trill. This patch was very intriguing but too cacophonous for my specific cue. So I looked more closely at the source sounds in the multi. It is a combination of half-step and whole-step trills on strings combined with woodwinds and brass—all at once. It’s great fun and I am sure to revisit this Ensemble. But in this instance I just muted the whole-step trills, brass, and woodwinds, and added a single cell of “Marcato Sharp Attack Strings.” I then saved this setup in my own user presets for future reference. (Listen to audio clip 3 below.)

Next it was time to experiment with the aforementioned modulation wheel blends. Garritan has set up GIO not merely to generate a bunch of quick layers, but always to give you an overall palette that’s playable. The pre-programmed options run from anything from a strings-to-brass sweep to armageddon-like swells of multi-instrument dissonance. I went to the “Infinity and Beyond MW” Ensemble Preset, which they describe as “strings and winds expanding to a large orchestra with plodding low percussion.” With the wheel down it’s very mellow, but start to roll it up and an extremely ominous sustain of “Earth Metal Percussion” and “Earth Cavern Percussion” patches take over. Along with goosebumps. 


Garritan has definitely succeeded in creating an expressive and dense musical palette that can immediately take you to realms that are ethereal, bombastic, edgy, happy, sad, or any mood you might associate with orchestral movie and TV soundtracks.

I’ve heard some musicians say that the GIO library’s source sounds are not as realistic and varied as some of the much more expensive and massive orchestral sample libraries. This is true, but they outclass anything you’d expect at this price. And again, the designers didn’t have that as their goal in the first place. They set out to give you combinations that would amount to something larger than the sum of their parts, while freeing beginners from significant amounts of time that would have been spent weeding through part after part to assemble the right blend. In fact, I suspect that even composers who are experts at that process might find themselves turning to GIO when they want to work more quickly and the gig calls for its ensemble-oriented sound.

I applaud Garritan’s efforts as well as their perspective. My only wish list items involve details in the visual aspect of the Aria player. Specifically, I’d like to see some “LED” metering on the mixer channels (as in a DAW) for some visual feedback on what’s going on with the individual Instrument Patch levels when I work the modulation wheel. Also, when browsing for a new sound, I’d like to see some sort of marker showing the currently selected preset. When you’re in the midst of hunting for the right sound and so many presets have esoteric names, it’s nice not to ask yourself “Did I just hear that?” A visual reference would do the trick here. (Note: You do get a marker showing which patch in an Ensemble is currently affected by the onscreen effects controls.) 

These are minute details when compared with what you’re getting for the price. It’s no mean feat to create something simple that can overtake you creatively without overwhelming you technically, and Garritan Instant Orchestra has not just shown it’s possible, but excelled at it. It’s about quickly creating larger-than-life soundscapes with evolving aspects that are playable in real time—the first time. As such, it earns our hearty recommendation for any keyboardist’s or aspiring composer’s “my first virtual orchestra program” . . . as well as our Key Buy award. 


PROS: Great sounding orchestral ensembles and creative blends in virtually all instrument categories. Easy for beginners to build-up polished cues in minutes. Useful mapping of layer volumes to modulation wheel. CPU-efficient.


CONS: Very few solo instruments. Aria player mixer could use better visual level metering.

BOTTOM LINE: If you can trade fine-grained customization for playability and ease of use, Garritan Instant Orchestra is the quickest way for a composing newbie to sound like John Williams or Hans Zimmer.

$199.95 list | $179.95 download |


When Korel Tunador isn't onstage with the Goo Goo Dolls or Katy Perry, he's performing in support of his own releases No Tomorrows and The Early Mournings EP. Find out more at


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