Hollywood on a Hard Drive: Score big-time with these 6 new orchestral virtual instruments

Score big-time with these 6 new orchestral virtual instruments
By John Krogh,

For music producers seeking to add cinematic textures to their tracks—and certainly for busy media composers needing to crank out widescreen cues quickly—the current generation of orchestral virtual instruments (VIs) makes it possible to achieve incredible results with little more than a MIDI controller and DAW. Indeed, we’ve come a long way since the days of the venerable Miroslav Vitous Symphonic Orchestra.

Offering a level of unprecedented quality and a dizzying array of features, orchestral VIs have evolved to the point where it’s possible to program MIDI performances that would fool the most discerning listeners into thinking they’re hearing a live orchestra recorded on a first-class scoring stage. And for our creative benefit, some developers have gone in new directions by pushing the sound of sampled orchestras into exciting and unfamiliar territory.

So, to help you navigate the current landscape of orchestral sample libraries, EM rounded up six of the most interesting collections released within the past year as a starting point. The products profiled in the following pages run the gamut from lean and mean writing machines to massive, full-blown ensembles that put seemingly limitless musical possibilities under your fingertips.

Best Service/Sonuscore’s The Orchestra

Best Service/Sonuscore
The Orchestra

While its name may be unassuming, The Orchestra ($399; bestservice.de) from Best Service is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s designed to create convincing, fully orchestrated parts just by holding down a handful of notes on your keyboard. In practice, it works remarkably well.

Based on an 80-piece ensemble, The Orchestra is a multisampled Kontakt library that provides all the basic articulations for each section of the ensemble—strings, brass, woodwind, and percussion, plus bonus male and female adult choirs. It’s intended as a sketch tool to help you realize your ideas fast, without bogging down your creativity with a deluge of options. (There are no solo instruments or multiple microphone perspectives to choose from, for example.) That said, The Orchestra is perfectly capable of professional results and, with a footprint of just under 6.7 GB, it’s a great choice for mobile rigs.

Articulations are presented in two ways: as separate NKI Instrument presets (e.g., Staccato Violins I, Legato Violins I, etc.) and as key-switched presets that combine all available articulations into single NKIs. This allows you to assign individual articulations to their own MIDI tracks, or keep your session streamlined by having one track for each set of instrument articulations.

This typical approach to organizing sample content is where similarities between The Orchestra and other libraries end. Beyond this, The Orchestra’s tour de force is its special NKI preset called “The Orchestra,” which features the innovative Ensemble Engine. This is a sophisticated MIDI processor that lets you load up to five instrument articulations and control/trigger them with any one of three arpeggiators or two envelopes.

The arpeggiators and envelopes have been carefully programmed to complement each other, so that as you play a single note or simple triad, the Ensemble Engine produces a complete orchestral phrase or gesture comprised of ostinatos, sustained swells, and other ornaments. The results are impressive, inspiring, and guaranteed to kick-start your creativity.

Within this single preset you can choose from three banks of snapshots: Animated Orchestra, Orchestral Colors and Orchestral Rhythms. Animated offers 30 phrase-based presets with names such as “After the Battle” and “Leaving the Base,” which give you an idea of what to expect. Colors features 60 playable combinations such as Mixed Flt+Vlns Marcato and Brass Low Sustain—these are great for playing tutti parts or melodies. Lastly, Rhythms gives you a bank of 60 basic patterns (8th-notes, 16th-notes, etc.) for each instrument family.

These same three snapshot categories are also used to organize Multis, which incorporate multiple instances of The Orchestra to create more complex and full-sounding arrangements. I’ll admit, using these patches can feel like cheating, but you can’t argue with the results.

Sonically, the samples have a full and forward quality with very little room ambience. Thanks to the onboard convolution reverb, you can tailor the space to taste. Sonuscore touts The Orchestra’s “rough and edgy” samples, which certainly add to the overall believability of the sound, but I did find the bow noise in some patches to be too much when stacking notes. Given the choice, though, I prefer the noise to a sanitized approach, and you can always use EQ to correct for some of these artifacts.

The Orchestra is an innovative instrument that can produce authentic-sounding orchestral passages with ease and speed. It would make a great starter library for beginners and a worthy addition to an existing VI setup for experienced users.

Heavyocity’s Novo Modern Strings.

Heavyocity
Novo Modern Strings

Based on an idea to “make strings new again,” Heavyocity set out to create a virtual instrument that boldly goes where no orchestral library has gone before. The result, Novo Modern Strings ($549; heavyocity.com), is one of the most ambitious and superbly crafted hybrid orchestral libraries to date.

Built for Kontakt, Novo features a deeply sampled 50-piece ensemble that was recorded at the Eastwood Scoring Stage at Warner Bros. Studios in L.A. Three microphone perspectives were captured, allowing you to dial in the amount of close, room or hall ambience, and each stereo pair has its own EQ controls for fine-tuning the mix. Initially, I found the overall sound a bit harsh, but it grew on me as I discovered Novo’s “style,” which is less silky than many other libraries. Sonically, the instruments have a detailed, intimate feel, even with the hall perspective. This is a relatively “dry” sample set.

The content is organized into three types of instruments: Traditional, String Designer and Loop Designer. Traditional includes four section patches (Violin, Viola, Cello and Bass), plus Low Ensemble and High Ensemble Textures, the latter of which offers sul ponticello and con sordino articulation choices. The basic section patches share a standard set of articulations (Long, Legato, Tremolo, Spiccato and Pizzicato) available via key switches, and for added realism, the short articulations offer three round-robin layers for both up and down bow. Other amenities include mod-wheel control over dynamics, convolution reverb and a gate/arpeggiator, which can create synth-like effects that would work in a variety of pop styles.

While it is certainly possible to create convincing string mockups using the Traditional patches, this isn’t Novo’s forte. In fact, compared to the String and Loop designers, Novo’s “normal” patches seem like an appetizer, not the entrée.

The String and Loop designer NKI instruments employ Heavyocity’s new Cycle engine, which brings to bear a range of features and sound-sculpting tools that we’ve seen in previous VIs (e.g., the Punish and Twist effects), and adds the ability to combine multiple effects that can be tweaked from a single macro knob to produce wildly creative and inspiring results.

String Designer uses the raw multisampled content as its source, and serves up a variety of sustained and pulsating pads that cover the gamut from cinematic and scary to urban and EDM. These are up-to-the-minute textures that are nothing short of spectacular. For example, “Fear the Walkers” nails composer Bear McCreary’s vibe for The Walking Dead, while “Skyline Drive” evokes the poignant emotion of NBC’s This Is Us.

Loop Designer includes over 400 loops of short phrases and ostinato patterns that have been manipulated using all manner of creative outboard processing, and then further dressed by the built-in software effects, and finally mapped in various combinations across the keyboard in related “themes.” These are instant inspiration patches that will undoubtedly supply the muse for many cues to come.

In short, Novo is a next-gen hybrid orchestral library that goes deep into uncharted territory to give pro composers and producers a powerful writing tool that is capable of conventional and radical results.

Native Instruments’ Symphony Series Collection

Native Instruments
Symphony Series Collection

Just as we were putting the final touches on this cover story, Native Instruments released Symphony Series Percussion along with the option to buy all of their Symphony Series VIs in one bundle, simply called Symphony Series Collection ($999; nativeinstruments.com). Naturally we had to include it!

Comprising Strings, Brass, Woodwind, and now Percussion, Symphony Series Collection (SSC) is an orchestral giant with an attractive upgrade/crossgrade price ($599) for existing owners of Komplete or any stand-alone Symphony Series titles.

All of the SSC libraries employ a similar interface that offers a range of mixing and performance controls, the latter of which make impressive use of KSP scripting. For example, staccato patches can play repetitions at different rhythmic divisions with the Repetition generator, woodwinds can perform convincing arpeggios using the Arpeggiator, and scripted vibrato/legato are used across the SSC range in varying degrees for added expression. The net result is an immense amount of musical control.

SSC features a flexible articulation selection system that allows you to use key switches or MIDI CCs to choose articulations, though the choice of articulations for each patch is fixed. While it’s possible to create different combinations based on the articulations provided, you can’t create your own custom combinations.

Close, mid, and far microphone perspectives are available, in addition to a factory-designed stereo mix, so you can tailor the ambience to your liking. With the Percussion library, you get an additional spot mic perspective, which gives a more focused sound for each instrument. I appreciate this level of control, but I did find it odd that there were no solo/mute controls for the microphone mixer channels.

Strings was created in partnership with Audiobro, makers of LA Scoring Strings (LASS), and is based on a 60-piece ensemble organized neatly into five presets—Basses, Cellos, Violas, Violins, and Ensemble—which puts the entire family into one patch. (No solo instruments are included, however.) Violins can be further divided into smaller sections, which is a nice touch. These are some beautiful-sounding strings with a lush, homogeneous timbre.

Co-developed with Soundiron, Woodwinds and Brass both consist of solo instrument and ensemble patches based on 36-and 32-piece ensembles, respectively. Instrument sections are divided into separate patches, as well as combined into full Ensembles for quick writing tasks. In addition to the standard set of articulations, crescendos/diminuendos and special effects are included, which make these VIs more useful for a variety of musical situations. The brass samples are rather reverberant, whereas the woodwinds are more intimate, but still ambient. On the whole, these are fine-sounding instruments that can cover a lot of musical territory.

Percussion was co-developed with Sonuscore and features a detailed set of 55 instruments organized into separate patches, plus seven additional kits that include Big Hits and FX Drones, both of which are great for adding excitement and tension to an otherwise ordinary cue. In general, Percussion is a great go-to for creating driving or delicate rhythms and mallet performances.

For composers or producers looking for a comprehensive orchestral VI, and who already have Komplete 2-11, SSC is a no-brainer. And for anyone shopping in the approximately $1,000 price range, Symphony Series Collection is worth serious consideration.

Orchestral Tools’ Berlin Orchestra Inspire

Orchestral Tools
Berlin Orchestra Inspire

Orchestral Tools has established itself as a premium brand, thanks in large part to its acclaimed Berlin series, which comprises separate libraries for strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion. Each of these collections is exhaustively sampled, expertly programmed and designed for maximum musical flexibility. They’re also massive and pricey.

With Berlin Orchestra Inspire ($399; orchestraltools.com), however, Orchestral Tools has boiled these products down into a CPU-friendly “best of” sketch tool that’s affordably priced, making it a great entry-point into the series.

Obvious comparisons can be made to Best Service’s The Orchestra. Both libraries boast a small sample footprint (9.3GB for Berlin Orchestra Inspire), a single microphone perspective, fewer dynamic levels and a streamlined set of instruments/articulations that cover a broad assortment of basic needs.

Berlin Orchestra Inspire (BOI) features 23 instruments or instrument combinations organized into seven categories: Full Orchestra, Strings, Brass, Woodwinds, Percussion, Harp, and Steinway D. The content is organized into Single Articulation NKI patches and Multi patches that use key switches to enable different articulations. Polyphonic key-switching can be engaged, allowing you to trigger multiple articulations (such as sustain and marcato) simultaneously; very useful for achieving textures that would normally require a dedicated articulation.

The “pre-orchestrated” instrument combinations are based on common doublings and orchestral colors. For example, Low Strings 8va layers basses and celli in octaves to produce a rich and familiar sound. Similarly, Trumpet and Horn Ensemble 8va excels at triumphant, bold melodies. Having these combo patches makes it easy to create convincing results without the tedious work of loading separate instruments and duplicating MIDI parts.

BOI also includes solo trumpet, French horn, flute and clarinet, which collectively expand the range beyond what you can write with section-only patches. In particular, I found the solo trumpet to be wonderfully dynamic and lyrical, due in part to Orchestral Tools’ “adaptive legato,” which alters the legato style based on the speed of your playing. I was also pleasantly surprised to find a set of cacophonic, dystopian effects and col legno strikes in the Full Orchestra SFX patch. Perfect for my next horror cue!

The samples were recorded at Berlin’s Teldex scoring stage, which imparts a crisp and relatively short ambience that, to my ear, has a classic soundtrack quality. According to the developer, the instruments are premixed with “correct volume balance to each other” and placed properly in the stereo field. You can certainly hear the distance with sources such as percussion, while strings are more up front. The overall sonic character is such that combining instruments without any additional processing produces truly realistic results. I do wish the instruments offered more bite at high velocities: This is a polite set, but nonetheless sounds fantastic and provides a good mix of ensemble and solo options for a variety of musical contexts.

Berlin Orchestra Inspire would make a fantastic first orchestral VI for those just starting out, and a useful writing partner for pros on the go. But be warned: It might just be the gateway library into an expensive German habit!

Spitfire Audio’s Bernard Herrmann Composer Toolkit

Spitfire Audio
Bernard Herrmann Composer Toolkit

Spitfire Audio has a knack for producing purpose-built collections based on the aesthetic of specific composers, and in many cases these products have been developed in collaboration with the artists in question. For example, Hans Zimmer Drums 1–3, Olafur Arnalds Composer Toolkit and BT Phobos were all created in partnership with each namesake, respectively. Bernard Herrmann Composer Toolkit ($499; spitfireaudio.com) follows in this tradition.

Herrmann died in 1975, so Spitfire didn’t have the luxury of working first-hand with this Hollywood legend, who is arguably one of the most influential in all of film music history. Instead, Spitfire worked closely with Herrmann’s estate, which allowed the developer to examine the composer’s most well-known scores. Armed with this orchestral artillery, Spitfire curated a series of recording sessions that capture the classic style of Herrmann soundtracks from the ’40s through the ’70s, but for a modern library that works across multiple genres.

Bernard Herrmann Composer Toolkit (BHCT) is mostly an ensemble library. There are no soloists, and only a few instrument families are broken out into discrete sections. Strings are divided into high (violin with viola) and low (cello and basses) patches, whereas trombones and French horns are available in isolation. That said, there are a lot of patches to work with, many of which are pre-orchestrated instrumental combinations. Collectively, these evoke a range of moods and timbres that absolutely nail the Herrmann ethos.

In keeping with the composer’s unique orchestrations and inventive instrumental textures, BHCT takes a different approach from the norm regarding the ensemble size and how the various sections were combined. Case in point, the main studio orchestra consists of 47 players (not including percussion and harp), which is larger than a chamber ensemble, but smaller than the typical film orchestra. Players were also brought in à la carte to create a set of patches based on particular films, such as Jason and The Argonauts, which was the inspiration for the English Horn+Clarinet+Trumpet patch, and Vertigo, which employed harp with vibraphone, among other interesting colors.

An abundance of articulations are onboard, including special techniques such as flautando, sul tasto, flutter tonguing, and more. I was especially fond of the pre-recorded ensemble chords, which immediately conjure images of Hitchcock’s work, and the special effects patches are not to be missed. Yes, you’ll find the obligatory Psycho string screeches, but also a lot more to add terror or tension to any cue.

The samples were recorded in London’s Air Studio 1, a much smaller space than Air Lyndhurst Hall where Spitfire recorded its massive Symphony Orchestra library. The result is a drier, tighter, and focused sound. Unlike more homogeneous-sounding orchestras, BHCT has an intimacy that I found to be a nice alternative to more “widescreen” reverberant VIs. Six microphone perspectives are provided, but frankly, the differences among them is very subtle. For a roomier sound, you can increase the ambience with the built-in custom impulse-response reverb.

If you already have a good all-round orchestral VI and you’re looking for a drier complement to your sound palette, or you’re simply hoping to inject some inspiration into your existing template, Bernard Herrmann Composer Toolkit delivers the thrills, chills, and trills (sorry) in spades.

Spitfire Audio’s Symphonic Strings Evolutions

Spitfire Audio
Symphonic Strings Evolutions

According to Spitfire Audio’s Paul Thomson, Symphonic Strings Evolutions ($299; spitfireaudio.com) is intended for situations when directors “want music that doesn’t do anything, but it should evolve and feel like there’s a growing tension or pressure.” Okay, no melodies, rhythms or chord changes—got it!

The solution? Start with very long string ensemble performances that begin simply, evolve, and morph over time, and eventually return to their original state. Record these at different intervals, and then map various combinations of these “evolutions” across the keyboard, so when sustaining one or more notes, the textures develop into moods and create a sense of motion, without actually producing an obvious musical idea.

Comprising 48 performances, or “Evos” in Spitfire speak, Symphonic Strings Evolutions (SSE) allows you to combine up to 12 Evos per patch. You can set individual key ranges, volume, and pan position within the Evo Grid, and if you like to fish for inspiration, you can randomize the Evos in a variety of ways to create a virtually ulimited number of unique mixes.

Performances fall into three categories—Traditional, Episodic, and Extreme—which include simple and subtle articulation changes, such as sul tasto to semitone trill, to slightly more dramatic evolutions. For example, Heavy Bow with Pulsing Bends Down (patch #42) slowly builds to a dissonant and disturbing menace that would work perfectly to create a sense of impending doom.

Featuring the same 60-piece ensemble from Spitfire Symphonic Strings and recorded in Air Lyndhurst Hall (arguably one of the finest scoring stages in the world), SSE is a grand affair that swings for the fences. Indeed, it’s the epitome of “blockbuster sound;” simply gorgeous or deliciously gritty, depending on the Evos you’ve chosen.

Content is organized into two main folders, “Instruments main mics” and “Instruments stereo mixes.” Within these are the main Symphonic Strings Evolutions patch and two folders, Individual Evolutions (1-48), and Curated Presets, which are great for learning how to use the Evo Grid. The Stereo Mix patches give you the choice of Fine, Medium and Broad, whereas Main Mics provide the familiar Close, Tree, Ambient and Outrigger microphone perspectives.

All of this amounts to a high degree of control over depth and width. I found these mix options to be especially handy because you might want to put the shifting textures front and center, and other times you may need them to sit on the outside and underneath a primary musical idea. SSE allows for both ends and everything in between.

Reverb, Delay and Tape Saturation effects are included for creative processing, and while I appreciate having these built in, I can’t help but dream of a version that includes Spitfire’s eDNA synthesis/scripting engine, which is capable of sophisticated modulation and all manner of twisted effects.

Wish list aside, Symphonic Strings Evolutions is an incredibly inspiring VI that can be used on its own to produce the kind of static-yet-moving music often heard (and more so felt) in simmering dramatic scenes, or it can work wonders as an unexpected spice to enhance more conventional musical passages. Bottom line: Certainly specialized, but highly useful, inventive, and oozing with class.

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