Orchestral Sounds Roundup

The landscape of libraries for orchestral instruments is more like an exclusive members’ club compared to the wild jungle of electronic music soundware we rounded up last month. Orchestral libraries tend to be sample-based, with a larger data footprint, and are more expensive due to the technically demanding nature of capturing so many performance variations. There are several developers who push the bounds of technical achievement and believability that are worthy of your attention. Here are Keyboard's top picks.

The landscape of libraries for orchestral instruments is more like an exclusive members’ club compared to the wild jungle of electronic music soundware we rounded up last month. Orchestral libraries tend to be sample-based, with a larger data footprint, and are more expensive due to the technically demanding nature of capturing so many performance variations.

As a producer/arranger who works extensively with both live players and samples, my ears are constantly getting a reality check as I bounce between real instruments and virtual ones. The primary goal here is to emulate what it ultimately sounds like when a real ensemble is miked up, recorded, and played back through speakers. Nothing ever sounds as glorious to me as standing in the room with a live ensemble of great string and wind players. On the other hand, it’s sometimes much easier to execute a particular passage with precision and larger-than-life tone with the aid of great samples. There are several developers who push the bounds of technical achievement and believability that are worthy of your attention. Here are my top picks.


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This company burst on the scene with no less than 40 completed titles in 2011. 8dio quickly found itself in favor among many composers for film and TV, as their selection of libraries covers everything from classical to cinematic to EDM. The big, expansive nature of their strings and woodwinds excel at larger-than-life orchestrations.

Their deep-sampled strings titles are divided into separate libraries of violins, solo violin, violas, celli, and basses. The Claire Woodwind series of solo woodwinds is remarkable, although for me they tend to work better as solo instruments rather than for building up ensembles. Their percussion titles, such as Epic Toms and Solo Taiko, immediately fit into an action cue and several 8dio titles are built around the cinematic production toolkit concept. I look forward to 8dio diving deeper into the world of orchestral brass. 8dio.com


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Audiobro is built around the L.A. Scoring Strings library and is the brainchild of composer Andrew Keresztes. As the core library has developed over the years, it has pioneered a lot of the current trends toward building up smaller sections into larger ensembles by the use of smaller sections. LASS actually divide each instrument section into divisi A, B, and C; a separate “first chair” solo instrument; and a full section mix. Real legato, auto-arranger, virtual stage placement, and tuning tables are just a few of the many features under the hood of this very capable core library. As I often combine two or three string libraries when I work, LASS almost always makes that list when I start.

LASS Legato Sordino takes the concept of LASS and mirrors the feature-rich architecture in a dedicated library built from the ground up with actual con sordino (played with a mute) samples. While many libraries resort to EQ, filtering, modeling, and other trickery for muted strings, Audiobro does it right and the results are glorious. Since the arrival of LASS in 2009, many developers have had to up their game to stay in it. audiobro.com

Big Fish Audio

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These players have been around since 1986, practically from the dawn of commercial sample libraries. They have titles in virtually every genre of music, including orchestral. Although Big Fish Audio does not develop every one of their titles in-house, they do a great job of working with developers to help bring their creations to light and to market. Sometimes just perusing their catalog of available titles can inspire a creative idea when I’m working on a new score.

London Solo Strings, Elite Orchestral Percussion, several Chris Hein titles, and the Prosonus collection are the high-end standouts of the group. In particular, the Prosonus sounds have been updated for Native Instruments Kontakt 3 scripting, keeping this venerable set of samples current and useful to today’s composers. bigfishaudio.com


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Started in 2007 by Michael Barry and Michael Patti, two former students of the USC Film Scoring Program, the CineSymphony collection of titles is rooted squarely in the cinematic sound of Hollywood. Their approach is direct: hire players who regularly play on film scores; record them at the MGM Scoring Stage and Sony Pictures Studios, where many of the best Hollywood film scores are recorded; and put Oscar-nominated master engineer, Dennis Sands, in charge of overseeing the sampling sessions.

Currently, CineWinds, CineBrass, and CinePerc are divided into a Core library with the bulk of the basic articulations and a Pro expansion that fills in the gaps with deeper sampling and additional articulations and techniques. CineStrings Core has just been released as of this writing, and there are several additional percussion, keyboard and other titles that all fit well together. The sound tends towards the big and dramatic, but I have also been able to caress tender and sweet moods from these libraries. As a token of respect, the players involved in Cinesamples sampling sessions also receive a small royalty for library sales. cinesamples.com


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Founded in 1988 by Doug Rogers, EastWest has a vast quantity of titles endorsed by a who’s-who of film and TV composers and record producers. Rogers’ hands have been involved in many of the virtual instrument innovations in use today, like construction-kit loops, sample streaming, and consonant/vowel typing for choir libraries. EastWest now owns the legendary United Western recording studios (renamed EastWest Studios), which operates as a commercial facility and base of operations for the development of new libraries and virtual instruments.

There are too many great orchestral and cinematic titles available to list, but the standouts for me are Hollywood Strings, Hollywood Brass, and the StormDrum libraries. Not content on just creating great content, most of the newer EastWest libraries run on the custom Play platform. Partly a custom sample playback engine and partly a proprietary copy protection system, Play also allows for some instrument development and implementations unique to EastWest. In general, PLAY is harder on your system resources than the currently ubiquitous Kontakt platform, but most A-listers don’t mind. The sounds are just too awesome. soundsonline.com

Kirk Hunter Studios

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Kirk Hunter has been on the scene as a player and sample developer at least as far back as the ’90s, to my knowledge. When I was a Music Director for the Academy Awards back in 2000, he helped me put together some customized Kurzweil K2000 strings samples for an onstage rig. Since then, he has been quietly and steadily developing some great-sounding libraries that a lot of working composers use alongside their more famous titles. I tend to agree; I think Concert Brass 2 and Concert Strings 2 are excellent choices for blending with other libraries to add depth, grit and presence.

Hunter’s TVEC 3 programming for Kontakt implements some innovative and musical features, such as: DivisiLive (automatic divisi as you play); IntervalLive (deeply customized sample transitions between notes); SmartLegato; keyswitched division of ensembles into whole, half quarter, and solo; and a number of articulations and envelope controls on the interface. Hunter is a bit of a one-man operation, and I often wish there was a bigger machine behind hum to bring his innovations and vision more to the mainstream. Nevertheless, he remains a secret weapon of choice for those in the know. kirkhunterstudios.com

Orchestral Tools

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When Berlin Woodwinds burst on the scene, I quickly took notice. Not only was the sound great, I loved the design and concept. Embedded right in the instrument interface is a picture and brief profile of the actual player being sampled. It is my understanding that the actual player earns a small royalty from sales of each library (a practice also implemented only by Cinesamples). Berlin Woodwinds runs deep with different players sampled thoroughly for building up divisi sections. True legato, a “Runs Builder,” and trill scripting provide some very realistic performance capabilities. Plus, the sound is gorgeous, having been recorded in Germany’s famous Teldex Studios.

The Berlin series is now venturing into strings and brass, with Berlin Strings already seeing a major (version 1.5) update of both programming and content. Tympani, glockenspiel, and grand pianos are also on offer, and the quality of their titles is high throughout. I imagine only good things will be coming from these developers in the future. orchestraltools.com


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Founded in 2001, ProjectSAM titles such as Symphobia and TrueStrike have been staples for TV and film composers for years and have spawned several sequel libraries. It’s not uncommon to hear entire TV episodes scored from these libraries alone. The focus here is purely on deep and rich cinematic colors.

Most of the ProjectSAM libraries are elaborate layouts of pre-constructed orchestral colors and instrument combinations with little in the way of detailed, individual instruments. This is not where you turn when you want to build up a score from scratch part by part—you go for the big, expansive, broad strokes with these libraries. What you lose in flexibility of specific orchestration, you gain in amazing sound and tone. Frankly, it’s extremely difficult to match the richness of these textures by building them up yourself with similar parts and instruments. These sounds drip with flavor and cohesion.

Simply playing around with these libraries will make you a better orchestrator by opening your mind and ear to interesting color combinations and instrumentations.They are a great way to get some inspiration going, kick-start a project, and then build upon later. Don’t be intimidated by the amazing sound—I’ve found that other high-end sample libraries combine with the Symphobia series very well with just a little attention to detail. The new Colours package of Orchestrator and Animator (cartoon music, I love it!) looks very promising, and I imagine we’re going to be hearing these libraries a lot in the near future.projectsam.com


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The name says it all. One of the few developers not relying strictly on sampling technology, Samplemodeling uses a hybrid approach of samples and physical modeling code to bring their instruments to life. All of their current titles are devoted to wind instruments, and that is where you can really hear and feel the nuances and variations of the physical modeling in the attack, tonguing, overblowing, and general dynamic playability that can’t really be captured by brute-force sampling.

All of their titles really come to life with a wind controller (such as the Akai EWI). Although their initial libraries seemed built for pop music, their newer libraries work equally well in an orchestral setting. Ensembles can also be built from solo instruments through some innovative sound design and modeling. I love this company, because I feel it’s a magnificent blend of Giorgio Tommasini’s scientific genius and Peter Siedlaczek’s passionate musicianship come together for a higher purpose. samplemodeling.com

Spitfire Audio

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Spitfire was initially started in 2008 in order to create a private custom library for its owners, Paul Thompson and Christian Henson, and to share with a few of their composer friends. It quickly became so popular that it turned into a commercial venture. Their approach was simple and similar to CineSamples and EastWest—use the actual players, rooms, engineers, and signal path employed by big film projects. For their orchestral libraries, that oftentimes means Air Studios Lyndhurst in London and recorded by award-winning engineer, Geoff Foster, whom I have worked with on occasion. In addition, Spitfire has just built a new studio complex for development of future titles.

Spitfire’s catalog has grown rapidly. Their Albion range focuses on large cinematic brushstrokes of pre-designed colors and is similar in concept to Symphobia; although they’re very different beasts that are actually quite complementary. The British Modular Library range consists of the Sable series that focuses on small-size string sections, the Mural series of larger string sections and various sections of wind instruments. There are number of different “ranges” that encompass percussion, piano and various other orchestral instruments. Of particular note is the new Hans Zimmer Percussion library, which was overseen by Hans himself. Two more Zimmer libraries are planned: Los Angeles (featuring Jason Bonham on drums) and London Solos. The depth and flexibility of these libraries is world class. spitfireaudio.com

Vienna Symphonic Library

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VSL has been at the forefront of deep sampling since the company’s inception in 2003. In 2005 Vienna Instruments was born, a proprietary virtual instrument plug-in allowing technological implementations not available before. VSL now clocks in at over 1.5 million samples to date and is still growing. The concept has always been the same: as a starting point, record each instrument in an absolutely silent environment with very little room sound or coloration, and allow the musical environment to be determined at a later time. While many find this approach sterile, technological innovations such as impulse responses (convolution) and virtual stages allow for the most flexibility in terms of final sound coloration.

There are simply too many variations of strings, horns, woodwinds, percussion, and auxiliary instruments to detail. However, VSL has just about everything covered at this point, from solo instruments to small ensembles to large sections. All of the titles mix and match equally well, and the instrument interface remains consistent throughout the libraries. Once you learn your way around one instrument, you won’t have any trouble with the libraries. I particularly appreciate that the Vienna Instruments interface is focused on business and not flash.

Not content to just create great samples, VSL has led innovations in moving MIDI and audio over LAN as a solution for connecting multiple computers into a mega-workspace with Vienna Ensemble Pro, which has become a staple among professional composers with demanding rigs. Vienna Suite is a powerful set of plugins, and Vienna MIR is breaking new ground in the area of virtual room simulation that must be heard to be believed. vsl.co.at

Honorable Mentions

There are a few other developers that deserve a mention. Cinematic Strings has only the one highly capable namesake library; however, it’s found in the arsenal of many professional composers. Garritan, now owned by MakeMusic and featured in their Finale notation software, focuses on ease of playability and a relatively small footprint (see last month’s issue for a review of their fun and great sounding Instant Orchestra instrument). Sonivox’s Symphonic Collection is a legacy library that lacks many modern techniques such as true legato, but largely makes up for it with a great sound.

All of these libraries are highly capable and are the tools of the masters. Orchestral sounds don’t typically fall out sounding finished at the push of a button, so expect to put in some time and effort. The results are worth it.