Best Solo String VST Plugins & Sample Libraries

Hello Composers, Mike here! :smiley:

What are your favorite Solo Strings VST plugins and sample libraries right now, and why? Do you use them in any specific way? Here are my favorites:

Joshua Bell Violin by Embertone

  • I find for user control, this is one of the best solo violin libraries out there. The legato variations are amazing, and it features both real and scripted vibrato. You can basically customize the playability just as you want, and the overall sound character too!

Emotional Cello by Best Service

  • The most amazing thing with this library is the amount of articulations you can choose from. And many of them are similar yet offer variation, so changing articulations often can really add some human and authentic vibe to the performance.

Afflatus Strings - First Chairs by Strezov Sampling

  • Technically this is just a bonus inside the full Afflatus Strings library, which I am a huge fan of. These first chairs might not have lots of articulations and custom options, but they sure sound great and have nice instant playability.

I don’t own any solo strings collection, so I would love to hear from those of you who does, your experiences, how you use them, what you like about them etc. =)

Sincerely,
Mikael “Mike” Baggström
Founder of professionalcomposers.com

A close friend of mine, bandmate, and terrific composer (who should at some point belong to this group) has Josh Bell, and I plan to go over to his office and try it out, maybe today.

I despise every solo string library I’ve ever tried. I was told Chris Hein was the best. I bought it. It’s terrible, unusable except as a temporary stand-in for a track awaiting a real player. I have emotional cello. It’s usable for perhaps one or two long notes, but for playing a musical phrase, it’s fooling absolutely nobody. Spitfire, Cinesamples, EastWest, 8Dio, Vienna. All of them sound completely like a keyboard to me. Maybe if I spent hours and hours futzing around with the sample. But I am a composer, not a programmer.

I simply haven’t found a way around spending the couple hundred bucks and hiring a pro to just come to the studio and play it. Suddenly, it’s “ahhhh wow, that sounds amazing.” I desperately want a sample library that will get me close to that. I have hopes for Josh Bell, but I’ll be keeping my eyes on this thread.

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I believe the hardest instruments to make software versions of are the most expressive ones, and the ones that are naked:

Solo Strings and Solo Vocals.

Those have so incredibly wide range of expression but it is virtually impossible to get that human emotion with software.

For layering they work, but naked they really show how digital they all sound still.

Question…
I have Joshua violin and it’s beautiful, I only have one doubt, is it possible to manipulate the intensity while I’m playing a sustained note? (just like many instruments change with the modwheel or the expression channel)
I currently manipulate the volume channel, but is there something I have ignored this time?

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Yes, I went straight into the control settings and choose “custom”. And set the MOD-wheel to control dynamics. I don’t think you have to do anything more if I remember correctly. The default setting is dynamics on velocity, but I believe I still have that setting on short notes, as it makes more sense. I can check my settings and share later when I am on my studio computer.

Hello guys, it’s Venn,

For me, Joshua Bell Violin is hands down the best solo instrument library I’ve ever heard. It features immense control over performance and is sampled so realistic. It’s true it takes a bit of time to map all the needed control switched to fit your play style, but once set you could outperform all other violin libs I’ve heard.

I’d also add Spitfire’s Solo Strings to the list. They are kinda pricey, but really worth it!

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I have mostly all my samples from Spitfire including Solo strings and I am happy with it. Currently I can’t afford to invest in other libraries

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This turned out to be a very long post. My apologies - considering the libraries and how people are talking about them got me thinking.

None of these instruments will play themselves.

To me there’s a kind of tree of goals with virtual instruments of any kind.

If the goal is purely composing, with sounds that refer to the intended instrument sufficiently so that someone understands what is intended, then “point and shoot” libraries that make moves or gestures of some kind themselves, along with, say, Sibelius to tell the library what stunt the composer wants performed, is fine. One won’t get a deeply human result in the tableaux one designs - more like a bunch of chess pieces with photos of people stuck to them. But it wouldn’t make much sense to expect more. Consequently if one used a more responsive library in that setting (but didn’t use that aspect of the library), the result would be similar or maybe even worse - without pre-recorded gestures the whole thing would appear flat.

If the goal is to render a product and what one hears - not the concept of the music but the actual audio - is that product, then libraries that are more flexible (or instruments that are more playable) are what is called for, but that’s the smallest part of what is needed. The other part is the composer learning and then playing these instruments in the way that best uses their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses. As someone who writes from the mind but within the context of what’s under my fingers, I can say that my writing has evolved from the time when I was using a TX81Z to an FB-01 to a Proteus to a JD-990 with an orchestra card to an S-750 or an e-64 with a library to the long slow rise into VI’s - and it’s evolved in no small way because what’s possible has improved so much. I had and still have a Yamaha physical-modeling synth that changed my life utterly because it allowed me to get closer to getting an instrument to depict what I wanted. And that is the romantic (in the philosophical sense) goal of my relationship with gear and libraries - for things to sound less wrong. For me to be able to ignore what’s not working because there’s lots that is. And the reality of traditional sample-based libraries is: if a library is well-performed and well-recorded, and of a sufficient depth of dynamics, and then appropriately edited and programmed, then what we should be left with is essentially a series of realistic moments strung together with either more or less convincing transitions between them. If the result one gets is less than convincing, here are some of the things that can make it so:

On the part of the user:

Choosing incorrect dynamics

Choosing moves like crescendi that don’t exactly work in your context

Forcing, say, mp samples to perform a ff role and vice versa

Awkward or insufficient controller usage

Not taking the attack or decay into account when playing

Playing a 12-player section with six notes (72 players)

Expecting the instrument to think musically for the composer

Unrealistic placement of instruments

Unnatural balance of instruments

Poor gainstaging ending in loss of fidelity

Misunderstanding of the instrument depicted by the patch

Poor orchestration choices

Using combination patches when specific sounds are needed

and others.

On the part of the library:

Unpleasant recording

Poor ambience/too much ambience

Transposition of samples resulting in formant shift

Poor use of filtering in lieu of recording dynamics

No divisi

Messy or inconsistent note attacks

Intonation issues

Insufficient round-robins

Not-great players

Poor vibrato or cross-fade implementation

Not enough coverage of what the instrument or ensemble does

Baked-in combinations of instruments that lack nuance

A preconception of usage that interferes with flexibility

and others.

Every few years new things come out that purport to do something for us automatically so we don’t have to worry about it - and some of those things are useful (expression maps, auto-divisi, speed-based legato transitions), and some haven’t been done yet (automatic delay compensation for various legato styles, which requires integration with the host sequencer), but really the best that we can expect from the existing sample-playback technology is that some things are handled so we can have more time to focus on other things that need to be handled, like dynamics control. There is never a point where we don’t have to drive the instrument. To be at that point is like engaging an arpeggiator that randomly generates notes and taking credit for conceiving of the note choice and placement, or telling an AI we want a major sprightly theme and then calling ourselves its composer because we made the initial request. I don’t want to have to do less - I want to be able to do more in an easier way. I don’t want AudioModeling’s cello to play itself - I like playing; I’m a musician. I want it to use better IR’s for more wood sound, and model bow attacks better, and know how to dampen or resonate strings better, and do it with less CPU (I can dream), but I don’t want it to decide when I want vibrato (it doesn’t) or in what way I want to play sfz. That is on me. I didn’t spend that money on the VI so it would play itself but so I could play it in a way that other instruments won’t allow.

So one could go either the route of snapshot realism - good-sounding recordings of well-chosen articulations used as well as possible - or faithfulness to musical intent, where the instrument goes where you tell it, to the possible detriment of sounding as real as a recording of an instrument doing that thing.

But to provide a little bit of context, although I dearly love the AudioModeling solo strings, and how much fun they are to play, I also wish they sounded a bit better, which is why I’m also looking at a few other traditional solo instrument libraries as well - because sometimes a nice recording of the instrument doing things it does is all that’s needed.

In my shopping and research…I like the general character of the Cinematic Studio Strings solo instruments, although I’m not fully convinced that they would be as overall responsive or dry as I would like. But ultimately, since nothing is as responsive as the AudioModeling stuff, and potentially the SampleModeling as well, perhaps what I really am looking for is something that sounds realistic in a certain setting. If what one needs is a little bit of first chair, then a pre-recorded library with at the very least the ability to decide how much vibrato is present should fit the bill.

Spitfire has more thoroughly-sampled solo strings, but a) you have to want that sound and b) you have to be willing to program it a bit and c) you have to like their GUI (to a certain extent - see below).

The venerable VSL solo strings have a myriad of articulations and moves and are also dry as a bone. Not as responsive as some, but I’ve cheated with breath controller on many occasions. Probably the most programming required of any, but tons of moves and articulations, well-intonated, if perhaps a little restrained emotionally.

The first chairs that come with the 8Dio Anthology/Adagio are not much to write home about. I like the 8Dio sound but nothing they make feels particularly agile to me and I find their programming incomplete and their recordings sometimes shy of the right performance - and I find them utterly shameless about saying those shortcomings add to the “humanity” of their libraries. Honestly. I’d tell those humans to play it again.

My awareness of EastWest’s libraries ended at Hollywood Strings and Brass. I personally detest the PLAY engine and how it interacts with other instruments (mostly Kontakt but VI Pro to a lesser extent) that also want to allocate RAM for streaming - and I find their programming to be sloppy and cumbersome. Far more offerings with greater nuance - though they get points for the first everything-we-make subscription, which is a fabulous resource starting point for many people if that’s all they use or (in my experience) if you quarantine PLAY to its own computer.

Someone with more direct experience with the other libraries (Chris Hein, Cinesamples, Orchestral Tools First Chairs, Emotional Cello and what have you) could offer insight on them, but they all seem to be as good as the setting is - that if you need the things they are, then they can be part of a palette. None seem overly flexible to me but I’m happy to be shown otherwise.

Also, to me a huge deal with solo strings is the kind of vibrato they record. I like a good florid one available. Not everyone does that. Demos reveal it.

So regarding GUI’s - I will absolutely own that a good GUI and articulation approach can really turn my head - and that things get more use when they are good to work with, no matter how they sound. (I remember years ago when my two partners and I got a new giant plasma TV for video, and after setting it up and watching some things, we all felt like it made our music sound better. :D) And I will also own that I bought the Spitfire SSO and then barely used it because I found the interface to be so tedious and the lack of all-encompassing (i.e. including legatos with other articulations) patches to be a great impediment to how I wanted to work with it. (I have other complaints about how I wanted the close mics to stand on their own more, but the library itself sounds pretty good.) So then… I found out about MIDIKinetics’ Composer Tools Pro (US$79) template for Lemur. I’d built Lemur templates before for other libraries, but CTP is beautifully organized and very powerful, and has the added feature of being able to recall instrument-specific presets when that instrument’s track in enabled in your sequencer - and in Cubase it does it automatically without even pressing a “recall” button. So that’s great - but also the template comes with an app that converts Cubase expression maps into presets for CTP. So I went and bought Babylonwaves’ €49 expression map package that has virtually every available library in it, and have begun importing and implementing them as needed. So I load Kontakt, and load four Spitfire patches per instrument - the core techniques, decorative techniques, legato performance, and Sul G legato patches - and assign them all to one midi channel, and CTP now has a preset that already knows what they are called and has labeled keyswitches for everything (and they can be on keys or on buttons, however you prefer to look at it). And I took ten minutes and assigned faders and buttons to the standard Spitfire functions, like mic levels, vibrato, tightness, expression and so on, and copied those assignments to every Spitfire preset (you can do them all at once), and now I have instruments I want to use, that allow me to make, say, mix adjustments, or purge a mic, for all articulations across four patches all at once by moving one virtual fader. And one can have any fader or switch send a default position when the preset is active, which means that when you select an instrument you’d been doing dynamics for you don’t have to wobble a controller in order to hear it. Which is brilliant. I’ve also built presets for the SampleModeling brass (took about five minutes), which make them much more usable than they already were. Next up for me to make will be presets for the AudioModeling woodwinds, which need a couple more fingers and limbs to control every parameter that needs it. And I’m not squinting at Kontakt’s tiny font anymore, so yay for that.

This is what happens when I have a morning off and school has started so the house is quiet.

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Another immensely in depth article on your part Richard. It’s really incredible how much thought you put into this, and to be honest it would deserve it’s own publishing on a magazine for composers. :slight_smile:

Very good points (btw, you can do bullet lists of those if you like). I completely agree on all those “mis steps and errors” we might do when trying to perform a real instrument using a virtual one.

My dream would be to have as much as, or at least close to, the amount of expressive capabilities real instruments have. Meaning absolute control over:

  • Dynamics (way more dynamic levels recorded/modeled than in current instruments)
  • Articulations (without key switches, articulations that can be performed)
  • Transitions (not only legato length, but the actual curve of the speed of he legato)
  • Vibrato (depth, speed and again the curve those enter and fall off)

I am with you on SWAM and Sample Modeling. The physical modeling is leading the “expressive capability race”…however they still lack to various degree in tone quality at this moment.

Some instruments are easier to model. There are great examples of this with: MODO Bass, MODO Drums, and Pianotech.

But instruments that have most of the expression in the very sustain of the sounds, and change tonal character and dynamics over time. Instruments with huge control over legato, vibrato, and crazy amount of articulations possible…those are insanely hard to model. So respect to SWAM and the likes for trying. :slight_smile:

Finally, I really hope the dreaded “attack-latency” per articulation is solved by DAWs and software instruments soon. If I want a real instrument player to start from the 1 of a bar…I don’t write the note a 1/32 note early (in the previous bar). Having to deal with this issue in DAWs and sample libraries drives me crazy. :stuck_out_tongue:

Sincerely,
Mike

So it’s not my imagination that Play is crashy. Anytime I have a crash, Plsy seems to be involved.

As for solo instruments, I think Cinesamples chose tone quality over expressiveness, and usually wins for me on that count. Cine almost always wins the shootout, because only Cine actually sounds like the instrument it’s supposed to be. EastWest stuff has amazing tone too, but I have to basically activate it, quickly print audio of what I want, and deactivate before I crash.

I never found a one-size-fits-all library that works for everything, so I use the following:

For ensembles, I use the legato patches from Afflatus Strings, as for the other articulations, I’m using LASS 2.5 and sometimes the Flautando patch from Spitfire’s Chamber Strings for the airy parts (it’s the only patch I like in this library).

As for the solo strings, I use the following combination for a quartet sound:

Here’s a pop song I orchestrated that uses exactly every single trick I mentioned above:

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Ah that is interesting that you blend a unique quartet like that. If you would add a bass, which would you use?

I think LASS is coming out with a new version soon, right? After they did their brass library I believe I heard something like that.

I’m still unhappy with every single double bass sample i have when it comes to legato patches, but if i had to choose, i’d say the afflatus “trailer bass” patch.

As for LASS, that’s fantastic news, what i love about their library is that it’s 16 GB only, let’s hope they keep it compact :smiley:

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This ones short and sweet…

I dont own it, but boy, do i want it…
Not just for synth duties… Im sure its been mentioned before… But I must own a Touche…

And the libraries , though usable without it…Together they are meant to be…
Its like Beer and Salty peanuts, A surfboard and a Great surf break, an egg to throw at a knob head politician…

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Well, I just got the Berlin First Chairs. My initial impression is that I absolutely hate the legato programming. Wish I didn’t. The solo bass sounds pretty great, but I’ve had little immediate satisfaction with the other instruments in terms of legato. So looks like I’ll use them for their terrific shorts, their exciting dynamics and so on, but they won’t do the lyrical thing that I want yet. It could be that I need to learn them better - but there are flaws in the programming that I will have to go around.

Looking at the CSSS stuff right now because though it may not be super versatile, it also, like the CSS, doesn’t seem to put up much of a fight.

I also have the new SampleModeling Strings. I’ve gotten some good results from them with a bit of timbral abuse. Much better vibrato than the AudioModeling stuff, and much woodier-sounding. Wish the portamento were a little better.

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Yes I think Sample Modeling Strings is better than SWAM, but still I’m not fan of the legato. But being able to play short and long notes in variations without using key switches is so liberating. :slight_smile:

CSS and CSSS, I will get these in time, as many say they are pretty much the standard if you want goo legato strings today.

Agreed. I use CSSS regularly for exposed solo strings, because they are SO easy to work with and sound great. Granted, I’m not a fiddler with knobs and sounds, so I naturally gravitate towards libraries that are user-friendly.

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