The Best Orchestral VSTs Available Today
Having an entire orchestra at your fingertips is one of the joys of computer-based music production. There is nothing quite like the sound of string ensembles building drama, woodwinds playing lightly with melody, or the thunder of a brass-infused crescendo. All of this can be composed, conducted and directed by you and your mouse — with possibly the help of a MIDI keyboard, some music software and hopefully some talent. (Although you don’t even need talent to play with the sound of an orchestra on your computer.)
There are many sample libraries out there that will give you an orchestra of instruments to arrange. All of them will run within your music making software as virtual instruments. But which ones are going to give you that elusive sense of emotion and realism? We’ve picked out a handful of libraries we believe will give you the best virtual orchestra for your music.
Our 2018 Picks
IK Multimedia Miroslav Philharmonik 2
Miroslav Philharmonik 2 – $499 (at time of writing)
Miroslav Philharmonik 2 CE – $149 (at time of writing)
Miroslav Vitous is a legendary jazz bassist from the Czech Republic. In 1993, he found himself at the cutting edge of sampling technology when he decided to attempt to sample the entire Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. The resulting huge and expensive sample library became the mainstay of many media composers running on hardware Akai, Roland, and Emu samplers. These devices typically had a few megabytes of memory: modern computers can load gigabytes of samples. Even so, the original Miroslav library was considered legendary for the “feel” of it as much as the quality and size of the samples. In 2006, IK Multimedia took this original library and built it into the Miroslav Philharmonik virtual instrument. Ten years later, in collaboration with Miroslav, IK Multimedia released Philharmonik 2, which takes the library to an astonishing 58GB covering 2700 instruments.
What’s perhaps unique about this virtual orchestra is it was produced by an artist rather than an engineer. There was something about the way the instruments were played, the emotion captured in those samples that made the Miroslav library so creatively exciting. Miroslav Philharmonik 2 aims to retain the spirit and musicality of the original while expanding the range and reach. It then delivers all the humanity, passion and grandeur of a real orchestra in one virtual instrument.
Within the virtual instrument, you can load up to 16 instruments. Each instrument comes with multiple articulations that are switchable via key presses. To load more instruments, simply load another instance of Philharmonik 2 and you have another 16 instruments to create another section. The mixing page helps you blend the individual instruments and control the routing through the inbuilt, professional effects. A powerful synthesizer engine lets you edit the instruments’ tonal character. And finally, a convolution reverb provides a 3D sonic visualization of the acoustic space in which you want to place your players.
Miroslav Philharmonik 2 is an extraordinary collection of instruments able to bring an emotive and elegant sound to your music. It’s wrapped up in an easy-to-use interface that’s instantly accessible and at an inclusive price point. For the budget conscious there’s even a CE version containing 10GB of samples and 700 instruments, covering probably what most people would actually need. This would be a good place to start.
Link to Website: www.ikmultimedia.com
Miroslav Philharmonik 2 aims to retain the spirit and musicality of the original while expanding the range and reach. It then delivers all the humanity, passion and grandeur of a real orchestra in one virtual instrument.
Vienna Symphonic Library
Street Price: $200 to $13,000 (at time of writing)
If Miroslav brought the artistry, then the Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) brought the science of authenticity. Situated in Vienna, Austria, they have produced over three million samples of nearly every instrument of the symphonic orchestra, choir, and associated sounds. With over a terabyte of high-resolution recordings, they have captured more sound than any other company. Their goal is to provide composers with the most authentic sounds so they can realize their visions and get themselves heard.
VSL is not a single product. It encapsulates all the libraries they have produced and continue to produce and can be rather overwhelming. It’s probably best to start with either a single library of an instrument you are interested in or a more cost-effective bundle like the Symphonic Cube. The Symphonic Cube contains Solo Strings 1, Chamber Strings 1, Orchestral Strings 1, Harps, Woodwinds 1 and 2, Brass 1 and 2, and Percussion. At nearly $2,000 for the standard version and $4,500 for the full version, it’s probably their most popular bundle. These are professional prices for a premium product.
All their instruments run through the same software interface, the Vienna Instruments Sample Player. This allows for complete management of each loaded instrument. It contains lots of clever technology like detecting certain ways of playing and providing the correct articulation for a more realistic sound. It’s extremely efficient and can load complex arrangements very quickly. Combined with this is the Vienna Ensemble Mixing Host which provides the mixing and effects processing side. As a system, the Vienna Instruments and Ensemble Mixing Host can run completely stand-alone and accessible over a network. This means you can have computers dedicated to running the library that are all controlled and played from another computer. A network of computers running VSL is a common way of coping with the enormous potential, detail, and size of these instruments.
If you want the lot, then the full Vienna Super Package will cost you over $13,000. If you want some stunningly realistic strings, the standard Vienna Dimension Strings 1 will cost you only $600. And there are some “Essential” collections at under $200. VSL is a serious, considered investment in the quality and authenticity of orchestral sounds. If you really want to sound like an orchestra and have the skills to arrange and articulate all the instruments on offer then this is where you should start.
Link to Website: www.vsl.co.at/
East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra
EWQLSO Platinum Plus – $799 (at time of writing)
EWQLSO Platinum – $599 (at time of writing)
EWQLSO Gold – $249 (at time of writing)
EWQLSO Silver – $199 (at time of writing)
East West has produced some of the most successful orchestral libraries since they began back in the early 2000s. Much of their success is attributed to their engineering prowess and ability to capture instruments at an amazing level of quality. With the Symphonic Orchestra library, they wanted to surpass their own high standards to create the most comprehensive, best scripted and most meticulously recorded sample library ever attempted. But of course, that’s the sort of thing all these virtual orchestra producers say. For East West, it was all about getting the highest level of fidelity and realism. They aim for that big “Hollywood Sound” film/TV/game Directors and Producers want “out-of-the-box.” You could see them as combining the usability and instant access of Miroslav with the quality and detail of VSL.
Symphonic Orchestra was recorded by eleven-time Grammy-nominated classical Recording Engineer Prof. Keith O. Johnson in a state-of-the-art concert hall. Each instrument was recorded from 3 microphone positions: close, stage (Conductor’s position), and hall. These positions can be mixed to achieve the realistic sound you’re after without the need for additional reverb.
Along with the new recordings came East West’s new instrument interface called PLAY 5. It greatly simplifies the workflow while intelligently and efficiently streamlining the library to achieve the best results. This allows less experienced users to get amazing results without having to dig into the particulars of each instrument. Articulations can be easily turned on and off and legato detection senses and responds to legato and repetitive playing. While mixing the instruments, the PLAY interface offers professional effects and some superb reverb impulses to place the players in various environments.
The EWQLSO (as they like to refer to it) is available in four flavors. The Platinum Plus, at $799, is the real deal and gives you all 194GB of library in 16 and 24bit. Regular Platinum, at $599, is the same but without the 16bit versions. Gold, at $249, offers 16bit samples of only the stage microphone but still covers all instruments in 33GB. Silver, at $199, reduces it down to 11GB with just “essential articulations and instruments.”
Link to Website: www.soundsonline.com/
ProjectSam not only manages to capture immersive ensemble performances but also adds in some unique and intensely cinematic orchestral effects. The result is an inspirational library in three parts that has found a solid place in scoring for films, games, and television.
Street Price: $499 each with deals available on bundles. (at time of writing)
With the big hitters of VSL and East West dominating in the areas of detail and realism it would make you wonder why you’d look anywhere else. But there are many ways to capture the sound of an orchestra and each space; with each environment and collection, players can add something new and nuanced to a collection of recordings. ProjectSam not only manages to capture immersive ensemble performances but also adds in some unique and intensely cinematic orchestral effects. The result is an inspirational library in three parts that has found a solid place in scoring for films, games, and television.
For Symphobia 1 it’s all about the ensemble recordings rather than individual instruments. They wanted to harness the power of different ensembles in different arrangements rather than building a sound from solos. This means you get the instant lushness of the combined force of sound. The other side of Symphobia is the cinematic effects. You’ll find rips and hits, string risers, brass clusters and evolving woodwind textures.
Symphobia 2 is the sequel and expansion to the original and completely unique. It brings in many more fresh and inspiring cinematic effects, along with exclusive legato ensembles and transitions. It takes the ideas of the original and explores all sorts of creative and interesting avenues.
Symphobia 3 Lumina takes a different path into fantasy, mystery, and animation. Symphobia 1 and 2 focused on the heavier side of drama, while Lumina aims for warmth and beauty. Using choir alongside full and smaller ensembles, it aims to capture finer arrangements and stunning textures. They also bring in some solo instruments for the first time. And as if in subversion of the beautiful, this library also contains a homage to the world of cartoon soundtracks.
Symphobia uses the Native Instrument Kontakt sampler instrument as the sound engine for the library. Although in some cases this can be restrictive I find the Symphobia interface is refreshingly light and minimal when dealing with a little bit of articulation, mic placement and effects. It resists the constant tweaking perhaps the other sample libraries demand.
Link to Website: www.projectsam.com/
Spitfire Audio Albion One
Street Price: $299 (at time of writing)
Rounding off our selection is Albion One from Spitfire Audio. Recorded at the famous Air Studios with a 109-piece orchestra it was intended to be everything you need to score a film in a single product. The orchestra was populated with London’s best players, people who feature regularly in Oscar-winning film scores, and captured in the same way film scores are recorded.
Albion uses 4 microphone positions — close, tree, outriggers, and ambient — and you can mix those to achieve the ideal balance of sound to suit the music you are producing.
What’s interesting about Albion is they’ve gone beyond the orchestra into other creative areas. The first is Brunel Loops, which is a module allowing you to smash together two sources into warped, sequenced, effected and blended loops. Secondly, there’s the Stephenson’s Steam Band where they’ve mangled the library through various horrible processors which results in some alarmingly good pads and electronic sounding orchestral movements. And finally, there’s The Ostinatum which is a pattern sequencer capable of producing amazingly lifelike orchestral arpeggiations. These are all part of the more interesting side of the Kontakt Sampler engine Albion uses.
So, if you want orchestra and beyond, then Albion One at $299 could be an epic choice.
Link to Website: www.spitfireaudio.com/
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