The Ultimate String Ensemble

A few months ago, EM began a series of features that spotlight the best collections of sounds in specific categories. The first installment (in December
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A few months ago, EM began a series of features that spotlight the best collections of sounds in specific categories. The first installment (in December

A few months ago, EM began a series of features that spotlight the best collections of sounds in specific categories. The first installment (in December 2002) covered bass guitar sounds; solo and ensemble brass sounds were next (March 2003). This month, we'll explore the best of the best in sampled string ensembles.

One of the most sought-after prizes in the world of sampling is the sound of a convincing string orchestra. For more than 600 years, the string ensemble has figured significantly into the repertoire of Western music. Even though our highest levels of formal art music — often mistakenly referred to as classical music — have long embraced the string orchestra as a staple, modern pop, jazz, rock, and film music have also taken great advantage of the string section's sonic versatility.

Among the many strengths of a full string ensemble are uniformity of timbre, expression, and dynamic range, from the lowest notes of the contrabasses all the way up to the highest notes of the violins. Other than the piano, no other instrument or instrument group possesses such uniformity over such a wide range of pitches, in addition to being equally at home serving in melodic and harmonic settings.

The sound of a great string ensemble is not only desirable, it is also expensive. After budgeting for players, studio costs, orchestration, and copying, a modest string date on a commercial pop recording can easily run more than $10,000 for a single afternoon. Faced with such costs, it's no wonder that live string sections were the first to be challenged by the power of sampling technology.

Very little in life sounds as impressive as a good live string section. I am fortunate to have played with some of the best studio musicians and live orchestras in my more-than-15-year tenure with Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick, and a host of other great artists who record and perform with live string sections. I have written plenty of orchestrations for symphonies, pop recordings, film dates, and television commercials, and nothing is as satisfying as hearing your music played by a good section of musicians who can transform a line of written musical notes on paper into a unique, living, breathing musical phrase that is greater than the notes themselves.

In this technological time, you can get extremely close to fooling highly trained ears with samples if you have a great set of sounds, excellent sequencing chops, and a lot of patience for detail. This is not a master class on either sequencing or patience, but I'll at least cover the best string-ensemble sounds available for anyone who wants to create good string-orchestra emulations.


Peter Siedlaczek's Advanced Orchestra

Peter Siedlaczek's Advanced Orchestra was originally created in the mid-'90s, but the Giga version I recently evaluated has been updated from the earlier Akai and Roland versions. Editions with ambient release samples have been included, and keyswitching programs are available throughout the library. (Keyswitching combines several programs into one large program that uses notes outside the playback range to switch between various articulations on the fly.)

String sections are divided into violins, violas, cellos, and basses. All sections include sustains, sordino (with mutes), tremolo, and spiccato articulations along with a handful of useful runs, trills, and short phrases. In addition, programs of vibrato strings and soft sustains cover the entire range of the string section; all sustained patches are looped.

Overall, the samples are good, though they lack bite and clarity and most of the notes contain only one sample stretched over two or three pitches. As I also noted about Advanced Orchestra's brass samples in a previous “In Search of…,” the strings have a touch of cloudiness that you can usually remedy with a bit of equalization. Undoubtedly, the problem is because the original 16-bit samples were created in an earlier era of sampling and intended for hardware samplers with limited RAM.

The library contains a few clams, the most notable of which is in the cello section. The note C2 (and the adjacent B1 and C#2) contains the open C an octave lower very prominently in the attack. Whether that was an oversight or intended for authenticity, the result is that it's practically impossible to play melodic passages using those three notes. The fix is to eliminate the sample altogether and further stretch nearby samples. For my own use, I have also customized many of the envelopes in patches to give them more defined articulation.

Advanced Orchestra has a smaller, more distant sound compared to many of today's larger, in-your-face recordings; however, you may find that quality desirable when you're creating orchestral simulations. Although I wouldn't turn to this library as a starting point, I find good uses for the sordino sections and pizzicatos as doubling layers, because their faraway sound adds depth. In addition, because the samples require less RAM than those of more recent libraries, Advanced Orchestra is not a heavy draw on computer resources.


Garritan Orchestral Strings

In comparison to most sample libraries, Garritan Orchestral Strings (GOS) is in a whole other league (see Fig. 1). The full Giga version is available now, as is a three-CD Lite edition in Akai, Giga, Kurzweil, and Unity formats. A Kontakt version is in the works. The Garritan library set the standard for modern sampling a couple of years ago, and several other major developers have wisely copped techniques that Garritan pioneered. GOS now consists of 20 CDs, with more updates on the way. Garritan even provides continuous free updates on CD as the library evolves — no need for extended downloads. I can't do justice to this collection within the limited confines of this article, but the attention to detail is mind-boggling.

GOS provides uniformly consistent articulations for first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, and basses, as well as all violins, full strings, and looped, light versions of all instruments (except second violins). In all of the stereo samples, each section of the string orchestra is already in its proper panning location. Practically all common articulations have been included: sustain (with and without vibrato), sul altra corda (played in higher position on lower strings), slides, sordino, detaché, marcato, sautille, sul tasto, tremolo, half- and whole-step trills, harmonics, pizzicato (tight, loose, and Bartok-style), and col legno (loose, tight, and ricochet). As if those weren't enough, almost all articulations are provided in keyswitched and warm versions (featuring judicious use of a controllable lowpass filter), and a recent two-disc update supplies tender versions of many programs (with new sample material included).

In addition, GOS provides almost all programs in versions that include release samples, expressive patches, and legato phrasing. The ambient release samples are gorgeous and strike a perfect balance between creating a sense of depth and not making the samples sound muddy. The expressive versions use the mod wheel to crossfade seamlessly between the layers (usually four layers per note). The legato phrasing is accomplished by also using a Garritan innovation called MaestroTools.

MaestroTools is a small application that intercepts the incoming MIDI data and processes it in a way unique to the program assigned on a particular MIDI channel. So that you can create convincing legato lines, programs marked with LEG in their names contain hidden goodies that become available when used with MaestroTools. When you check the Mono box for a particular channel in MaestroTools and play in an overlapping legato fashion, for example, the samples' initial slow attack portions are removed and transition samples are inserted between the previous note and the next.

It is a sophisticated process; to the user, however, it simply results in gorgeously connected legato lines that don't suffer from the slight fade-in on each note's attack that's typical of string parts. The patch responds like a synth in mono/legato mode, so you have to build chords one note at a time using multiple programs with MaestroTools in mono mode. MaestroTools also switches automatically between the down-bow and up-bow samples in the short bow articulations, creating a much more convincing effect in fast passages. The results must be heard to be fully appreciated.

GOS has little to criticize, but I do have a few minor complaints. There are no sordino samples for the second violins, an odd omission given the completeness of the library otherwise. The sul tasto samples are provided only as short articulations and are incorrectly described as being used only in fast passages. (As an alternative to mutes, I frequently write for sustained sul tasto strings to mellow the timbre.) Finally, the overall sound has a slightly glassy hardness that some might describe as edgy; it's probably a result of the mics, preamps, and converters used on the sampling sessions at New York's Lincoln Center. Fortunately, you can attenuate that edginess somewhat using impulse responses or performance file setups supplied by Garritan. The warm programs can also mellow the sound a bit; however, the simple lowpass filter in GigaStudio is effective only up to a point.

GOS's naming scheme is consistent throughout all of the sections, so it isn't especially hard to keep up with the multitude of individual programs. The finest and most detailed documentation for a sample library to date is included; it not only explains the technical details of the library itself but also serves as an excellent master class on strings and string writing in general. At the risk of sounding corny, I was nearly moved to tears the first time I read through the beautifully bound documentation. It was so abundantly clear that this library is the work of a talented man who truly loves music and musicians and that he put much more of his heart into it than he will probably ever be repaid for in the way of monetary profit. GOS is a stunning achievement.


Miroslav Vitous String Ensembles I

The Vitous library is a classic of the 1990s. It was one of the first to create a sophisticated collection of symphonic samples and has been used widely for years. The price is now roughly half of what it was initially, so some users who were scared off by the original price tag may want to check it out.

Sections are divided into 11 violins, 23 violins, violas, 8 cellos, 4 cellos, and basses. Articulations include sustain (with and without vibrato), fast legato (violins only), espressivo, staccato, tremolo, sordino, pizzicato, soft sustained (violins), detaché, and sul ponticello. The Giga version provides keyswitched programs and both looped and unlooped samples.

Disappointingly, the Giga version I evaluated does not take full advantage of MIDI controllers. The mod wheel — which does so much in many other libraries, such as filtering, crossfading, or expression — acts as a reverse-Volume control on some patches (increasing the mod wheel lowers the volume) or simply adds a nauseating LFO vibrato that should have been disabled altogether on others.

To a lesser degree than Advanced Orchestra, Vitous String Ensembles has a dark, distant sound compared to some of the newer libraries. However, I find that many Vitous samples still hold up very well today, and I use them regularly, especially for layering. Some of the attacks on the sustained sounds are rather slow (as was common in most earlier string samples), and most programs use only a single Velocity layer per note. However, the library is still amazingly uniform and musical, even by today's standards.

Of particular note is the inclusion of a four-person cello section. That's a great addition, as it provides a better sound for cello divisi writing; it's also a great sound to use as a layer for other cello samples.


Vienna Symphonic Library

The mother ship has arrived. Already weighing in at 93 GB of samples in the 16-bit, 44.1 kHz First Edition, there's no telling what the 24-bit Pro Edition will encompass in terms of size and content. One of three sample libraries that I can't fully cover in this article, Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) promises to emerge as the new state of the art in sampling (see Fig. 2).

A privately funded team in Europe was practically given a blank check to create the most detailed, most realistic sampled orchestra in existence. After a custom recording facility was built for the sampling sessions, the hard drives started filling up with amazing-sounding samples. You'll have to explore the VSL Web site ( for more details, but the undertaking was massive, to say the least. For now, digital orchestrators have the 16-bit Orchestral Cube and Performance Set in Giga and EXS formats, with a larger 24-bit Pro Edition awaiting support in GigaStudio (reportedly on its way). The Pro Edition will also include many more instruments and articulations than are currently available in the Orchestral Cube. If you don't need the entire orchestra, the Orchestral Cube's Strings is available separately.

Currently, the string ensembles in VSL include violins, violas, cellos, basses, and full-range string ensembles. There are no separate samples for first violins and second violins at this time, and I am not sure whether that will remain the case in the Pro Edition. The articulations currently include sustain (with and without vibrato), staccato, detaché, tremolo, trills, pizzicato, fortepiano, sforzato (sfz), and sforzatissimo (sffz). Sordino samples are planned for the Pro Edition release, but are not currently included in the First Edition.

VSL programs have from two to four Velocity layers. Crossfading programs that use the mod wheel and keyswitching programs are included, and instruments marked with +RS contain release samples. Staccato and detaché samples are provided in two different lengths, allowing the user to choose the samples most suited to the musical passage.

Up and down bows are provided for the short bows. VSL also features an Alternation Tool application — very similar to MaestroTools in GOS — that can control the up- and down-bow sample switching in a more sophisticated way.

VSL's sound is larger and more close-up than most of the other orchestral libraries. That's because of miking techniques, modern advances in sampling, and the damping of the custom room that was built for the sampling sessions. The samples are surprisingly dry for an orchestral library, though you do hear a touch of room buildup when you use several programs simultaneously. The idea is to let you use your own ambience on these neutral samples, especially because many VSL users will have access to good hardware reverbs or impulse-response-convolution software (such as Audio Ease Altiverb) or hardware (such as the Sony DRES777). Still, a minor criticism I have of the overall VSL sound is that all the instruments sound fairly close-miked, which arguably makes them more versatile but less symphonic sounding.

Nonetheless, the sounds are gorgeous. The sound exhibits an immediacy and realism that are rarely found in sample libraries. I received the first commercial release of VSL, so many of the programs need to be further tweaked for smoother crossfades between Velocity layers, balance of release samples to the main sample, and so on; in addition, more articulations are still needed. In fairness, VSL is a work in progress that already sounds pretty stunning. It will surely continue to improve dramatically in the coming months — the size of this library will probably triple before it's done. Purchasing VSL now will provide you with a discounted upgrade path when the Pro Edition is released, so if you're serious, now is the time to invest in what will surely be a staple of film and television composers and music producers in the very near future.


Virtuoso Series Strings

Large and aggressive are two words that immediately come to mind when I think of Kirk Hunter's Virtuoso Series Strings (see Fig. 3). I wouldn't start here when I'm looking for tender, ambient strings, but they work great for rock 'n' roll. Overall, the samples are dry and edgy, which is perfect for cutting through a barrage of distorted guitars. Hunter has customized the library to take advantage of the programming features of each available platform. As the most detailed collection, the E-mu library appears to be his favorite.

Virtuoso Strings provides programs with 24 violins, 8 violins, 2 violins, 1 violin, 16 violas, 2 violas, 10 cellos, 6 “edgy” cellos, 2 cellos, and 5 double basses. Sustain, marcato, octave, hard, fast, sordino, trills (half- and whole-step), tremolo, nonvibrato (24 violins only), and slides are included. From one to three layers per note are provided, with most programs typically employing two layers.

The overall sound of Virtuoso Strings is hard and in-your-face to the extreme, with liberal application of EQ, so the sound is anything but neutral. However, the fizzy nature of the samples is precisely what makes these strings good for pop and rock tracks, because they usually require only a splash of reverb and perhaps a touch of compression to speak well in a dense track.

When auditioning programs in Virtuoso Strings on their own, I have to fight the urge to immediately dismiss them; their beauty is found in working them into a track. Many of the programs have too much attack in the sample; consequently, some envelope tweaking may be in order for some users (like me). If you're savvy enough at programming, assigning the mod wheel to adjust the envelope start time can take off some of the edge when necessary.

The 8-violin, 6-cello, and 2-player sections are great for layering with other libraries to create more immediacy and “rosin” sound. The slide effect sounds pretty good in native Akai and E-mu formats but suffers in Giga translations.


The Orchestral Collection

Perhaps the oldest of the libraries featured here, the Prosonus Orchestral Collection (POC) paved the way for later orchestral libraries. What it lacks in detail, it makes up for in variety. Even today, many of its samples are still useful. The recently updated Giga version has given POC a shot in the arm through creative programming (see Fig. 4). The programmer even made new recordings of the original source material using current audio equipment to create longer, more realistic samples.

The provided articulations of the string ensembles are well-rounded: sustain, marcato, pizzicato, pizz snap (Bartok), col legno, sordino, and tremolo. Add some chromatic runs and string effects to the mix, and you have a heck of a useful library. The Giga update provides additional keyswitch programming, mod-wheel-controlled release samples, and mod-wheel crossfades.

As with many early sample libraries, multiple layers are at a minimum. POC has some sonic inconsistencies, such as a few monophonic cello and violin samples. It has a few programming inconsistencies, too; for example, the keyswitched Violin Sec Sus/Pizz Key Sw program won't let you return to the sustain layer after activating the pizz key because the keyswitch assigned to activate the sustain layer also plays a sample in the program.

However, you can find a lot of good material here, and sometimes you can find the right sound for a particular musical phrase in these older libraries. Whether you're looking for the right standalone timbre for a passage or a pizzicato sound to double another library's sound, the Prosonus Orchestral Collection is a great value, especially when you consider that its price includes solo strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion.


Denny Jaeger Master Violin Library

Another oldie, the Master Violin Library concentrates solely on violins, the string section most often called on (see Fig. 5). Basic bread-and-butter articulations include p, mf, and f sustains, tremolos, trills, and pizzicato samples, but no sordino samples are on hand.

The raw samples are very good, and the balance between ambient space and immediacy is excellently attained for many applications. The timbre is very clear and articulate, making this library great for adding a little immediacy to your overall sound by layering its samples with other violin sounds. The matched tuning of the players on these samples is so good that there's very little pitch deviation, resulting in an austere sound that is a bit generic on passages that should sound rich and thick.

In the original versions for hardware samplers, mono and stereo programs are provided, as are 44.1 and 22.05 kHz versions. (The latter is intended to conserve sample RAM.) The updated Giga version does away with the mono and low-res versions; however, it does not take advantage of programming features such as keyswitching. In fact, the Giga version doesn't even provide Velocity cross-switching between the multiple dynamic layers, and the mod wheel either does nothing or adds an LFO vibrato that should be disabled. In addition, the Giga version's program-naming scheme is unclear because the included documentation on the CD insert was for the Ensoniq EPS version.

I almost didn't include the Master Violin Library in the roundup; in its current state, it barely met my criteria for “best of the best.” However, the quality of the raw samples makes this library a winner. The Master Violin Library provides a great alternative set of violin samples that can be very effective with a little coaxing.


Strings & Orchestral Percussion

In the early '90s, Roland raised the bar with the Strings & Orchestral Percussion library. Roland's flagship orchestral library for the S700 series has seen a lot of mileage in the professional world. Until just a few years ago, a large portion of my orchestral sounds was rooted in this library, though that situation has shifted over time as better libraries have emerged. With the release of the XV-5080 synthesizer, the collection has been reintroduced in different packaging (see Fig. 6). Still in native S700 format, the Solo Strings and String Ensembles are bundled with the Orchestral Percussion library in a two-CD set. To my knowledge, the contents of the original string and percussion libraries are included in their entirety in this newer, less expensive version.

It is impossible to extract from the powers at Roland the exact sizes of the string-ensemble samples, but there's a boatload of programs to choose from and a wide variety of articulations, including all the usual suspects. The library also offers a good number of runs, hits, clusters, glissandi, and other effects. But be warned: a lot of this specialty material has been used quite a bit already — think of the string run in the intro to Mariah Carey's “Forever” or the obnoxious number of songs that have used these orchestra hits. I'd dump all that stuff and focus on the multisampled patches, which are quite good overall.

A few samples have tuning problems, and a few sounds leave me scratching my head, but this library is still an overall winner, even today. These samples have largely dictated the sound of recorded strings in pop productions over the past decade, and they're still worth having in your arsenal. I hope that Roland will someday go back to the original high-resolution sampling sessions and completely revamp the collection for today's technological standards without imposing the limitations of last decade's hardware samplers. In the meantime, Roland's superior SRX-04 Symphonique Strings are available on a synthesizer expansion board.


Symphonic String Collection

Symphonic String Collection (SSC), the last collection in this roundup that I don't have space to fully cover, is another über-library. Shipping on 20 CDs, SSC provides the most complete set of string articulations to date, raising the standard for string-sample libraries another degree with the thoroughness of its sampling and programming (see Fig. 7).

Sonic Implants has made navigation of this mammoth library a breeze by using a meticulously consistent naming scheme that applies to all of the string sections: first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, basses, and full-range ensembles. Only Symphonic String Collection and Garritan Orchestral Strings treat the first and second violins as separate sections (as they should be) by creating completely different sets of samples and placing them in their proper perspectives on the soundstage. Happily, both SSC and GOS locate all violins in their more common orchestral position — on the left of the conductor, with first violins more to the left than second violins — rather than simply splitting the first and second violins (firsts left and seconds right).

Articulations include legato, col legno, sordino, espressivo, natural and artificial harmonics, pizzicato (tight, loose, and Bartok snap), spiccato, staccato, tremolo, and trills (half- and whole-step). Effects such as bowing on the bridge, tremolo behind the bridge, scratches, and glisses are included. Additionally, almost all programs sport versions with release samples that sound incredible. There are two-layer and three-layer programs, including versions that use the mod wheel to crossfade between layers. Slow-attack versions of most sustained programs are also provided.

Like GOS and VSL, Symphonic String Collection provides up and down bows for greater authenticity. SSC takes realism a step further by also providing alternating up and down bows for the legato sustains. In those programs, you can use the mod wheel to alternate up and down bows, which is quite easy to record in a sequencer. Unfortunately, SSC does not contain an intercepting MIDI application like GOS and VSL do, which means you might have to live with slightly undesirable attack characteristics when you're using the legato samples. I hope that Sonic Implants will consider jumping on the bandwagon with GOS and VSL in this technical area only because the results are so stunning when applied correctly.

If you're in a hurry, the full-range Ensemble programs sound great all by themselves. The day I received the library, I immediately used the Ensemble Con Sordino R(elease) bank on a quick string arrangement for a pop ballad. I didn't even call up the muted sections individually — I just duplicated the one bank on four separate MIDI channels and blazed ahead. Less than six hours later, I was in the studio overseeing the mix when a producer whom I had never met dropped in to check out the facility. He heard the track we were mixing, commented on how great the strings sounded, and hired me on the spot to write a string arrangement for one of his projects. How's that for a personal testament? Within six hours of opening the box, the library had helped get me more work!


Best ServicePeter Siedlaczek's Advanced OrchestraAkai, audio, E-mu, EXS, Giga, Pulsar, Roland, Yamaha5 CDs$495 Akai, E-mu, Giga, or Roland; $399 audio; $135 Akai, EXS, Pulsar, or Yamaha Compact; $149 individual volumesGary GarritanGarritan Orchestral StringsAkai, Giga, Kurzweil, Unity20 CDs or 3 DVDs, Giga Advanced; 3 CDs, Akai, Giga Lite, Kurzweil, or Unity$895 Giga Advanced; $249 Akai, Giga Lite, Kurzweil, or UnityIlio EntertainmentsMiroslav Vitous String Ensembles IAkai, E-mu, Giga, Kurzweil, Roland, SampleCell1 CD$795Ilio EntertainmentsVienna Symphonic LibraryGiga, EXS2 DVDs, Strings; 8 DVDs, Orchestral Cube; 7 DVDs, Performance Set; 15 DVDs, Complete Orchestral Package$940 Strings; $1,890 Orchestral Cube; $1,490 Performance Set; $3,090 Complete Orchestral PackageIlio EntertainmentsVirtuoso Series StringsAkai, E-mu, Giga, Kurzweil, Roland, SampleCell4 CDs$995ProsonusOrchestral CollectionAkai, Giga, Kurzweil1 CD$295Q Up ArtsDenny Jaeger Master Violin LibraryAkai, E-mu, EPS, Giga3 CDs, Akai or E-mu; 1 CD, E-mu, EPS, or Giga Condensed$699 Akai or E-mu; $299 E-mu or Giga Condensed; $149 EPS CondensedRolandStrings & Orchestral PercussionRoland2 CDs$395Sonic ImplantsSymphonic String CollectionGiga, SoundFont20 CDs or 3 DVDs, Giga; 7 CDs, Giga or SoundFont Mini$995 Giga; $449 Giga or SoundFont Mini

The sound character of SSC is very warm and tender in the legato samples, but the instruments can also bite deliciously in the marcato, staccato, and spiccato samples. Incidentally, Symphonic String Collection is the only library that truly makes the distinction between staccato and spiccato articulations (spiccato is the much more common string equivalent of the staccato found in the rest of the orchestra). SSC also contains the most room ambience, but that's okay because the room used for the sessions sounds exquisite. I have had no problems blending SSC samples with other libraries, even if it meant withholding some of the room sound I was applying to the other samples to match the perceived distance. If you prefer a dryer sound, you can use programs that lack the release samples, which still sound great.

My one slight criticism is that some of the Velocity-layer transitions are abrupt, making several Velocity-switched programs challenging to control while playing live. Of course, it's a simple task to edit Velocities in the sequencer after the fact, but I had to tweak MIDI Velocity a little more in SSC and VSL than in the others. However, the results sounded so great that I didn't really mind the extra trouble.


Not long ago, I orchestrated a Christmas musical that was recorded in Indianapolis. The composer and I wanted a large symphonic sound, but because the string section was not as large as we would have liked, I sequenced a mock-up of the entire string section. We had several reasons for the detailed mock-up: It gave us a good representation of the musical's overall flow, which in turn helped the players on the recording dates get a quick sense of the tone and intent of each piece in the suite. The brass, woodwind, and percussion dates were scheduled to precede the string dates (though I would not have planned it that way), so the mock-up also served to substitute for the live strings and to hold the pitch center together. Finally, the mock-up added depth and weight to the live strings, a technique that's becoming more common in modern pop recordings.

In an ideal world, we would have booked the New York Philharmonic and knocked it out in a single three-hour session. But it wasn't that kind of top-dollar project.

I knew that the sampled strings had to sound great up front; I would not be able to revisit the sequences after the live dates due to the tight production schedule. That meant that the articulations, timing, feel, and dynamics had to be spot-on or it could get messy later in the mix (see the online sidebar “Creating Realistic Ensembles” for more details).

I spent about a day and a half going through the Big Three libraries — Garritan Orchestral Strings, Vienna Symphonic Library, and Symphonic String Collection — with a specific mission in mind. I had become somewhat familiar with their contents over the course of writing this article, and I set out slowly building a new GigaStudio string template for this specific project. Little did I know that I would squeeze every bit of performance out of my single GigaStudio-equipped PC by filling all 64 available slots and using 98 percent of my available RAM. I settled on approximately equal doses of all three libraries to create a super string setup that contained all the sustains, marcatos, spiccatos, pizzicatos, and sordinos I wanted.

However, the resulting drain on my PC was so high that I had to sequence and later record each of the five sections in chunks because I was chewing through the 160 available notes of polyphony like crazy. Part of the problem was that I really liked a lot of the three-layer programs that use the mod wheel to crossfade between dynamic layers. Unfortunately, every single note played all three stereo samples simultaneously, even if they weren't all heard. If the sound also contained a release sample, then I was using eight notes of polyphony for every note. Add to the situation that I write a lot of divisi parts within sections and I like to layer sounds for timbre and performance variety, and it was impossible to hear everything on playback with a single GigaStudio 160 setup.

One solution would have been to avoid using the crossfade programs and use the Velocity-switched programs, thus recovering some polyphony. Unfortunately, that would have eliminated the ability to swell from a pp to ff on a single note, so I had to make that decision based on what the music called for. Another possibility would have been to simply set up multiple Giga-equipped PCs or possibly use a spare Mac running software that reads Giga samples properly and spread it around. I mention that solution only because it can quickly become a real-world performance challenge with such exquisitely large sample libraries.

I haven't tried it yet, but Garritan has just shipped a free update to GOS that addresses memory problems by offering versions that use one-third or half the RAM or offer reduced polyphony.


Without a doubt, Garritan Orchestral Strings, Symphonic String Collection, and Vienna Symphonic Library are the current state of the art in string samples (see the online sidebar “On the Horizon”). If you're serious about string emulations, then you just have to bite the bullet and own all three. (Remember, VSL also gives you a full orchestral palette of sounds, but the strings are available separately.) If your budget is really tight, then at least check out the Akai version of GOS or the Giga Lite versions of both GOS and SSC. I checked out the three-disc Akai version of GOS, which is more tightly looped than the full version; it still sounds fantastic, and I would have no problem using it.

No matter how great any one library is, sometimes you still need options and alternate choices. That applies to string sections just as much as (if not more than) it applies to other sampled instruments. The humbler libraries often fill the void perfectly. Strings & Orchestral Percussion and Miroslav Vitous String Ensembles have a lot of useful life in them, and they offer a few sounds that I still prefer to the new megalibraries. Advanced Orchestra, Prosonus Orchestral Collection, and Denny Jaeger Master Violin Library are all very good, but they're showing their age. When I use them only as doubling or thickening agents, even in small doses here and there, my mock-ups sound better with them than without them. Virtuoso Series Strings is unique in that it has more rock 'n' roll attitude than all of the others combined. I don't know if that was Kirk Hunter's intent, but that's how it works for me.

No matter what arsenal of string sounds you choose for creating really good string emulations, you still have to add the other two elements I mentioned earlier: sequencing chops and patience. If your orchestra mock-ups sound like a big accordion, you can no longer blame the samples.

Rob Shrockhas worked with a multitude of artists, from Burt Bacharach to Stevie Wonder. He currently serves on the Board of Governors for NARAS.


Best Service/EastWest (distributor)
tel. (800) 969-9449 or (310) 271-6968; e-mail; Web

Gary Garritan
tel. (360) 376-5766; e-mail; Web

Ilio Entertainments
tel. (800) 747-4546 or (818) 707-7222; e-mail; Web

Prosonus/Big Fish Audio (distributor)
tel. (800) 717-FISH or (818) 768-6115; e-mail; Web

Q Up Arts
tel. (800) 454-4563; e-mail; Web

Roland Corp.
tel. (323) 890-3700; Web

Sonic Implants
tel. (888) 769-3788; e-mail; Web