Monday, December 9, 2013

Orchestral Libraries 2: A Review of East West, the Complete Composer's Collection, and other High End Sample Libraries

Ok, so it's been a while since I wrote my buyer's review for some of these libraries. As my most popular article, I feel I owe it to you, the readers, to continue this as a sort of mini series.

For today, I will give a more in-depth review of my East West purchases as well as some insight to the future posts you can expect to see.

Most of you should know, through your own research, what East West is and how they operate. They have two levels of sample library (high and elite), and they often bundle packages, known as the Complete Composer's Collections, together for those who are looking to buy several libraries at a discounted price.

Some of my first serious libraries came from that EW CCC, against my better judgment and the advice of many who came before me, completely and utterly due to the price. As I stated in my buyer's guide, it is the most all-in-one package you could probably find... at least a few years ago. With its ability to customize exactly which libraries you get and how many (above 7) you get, it was very appetizing to me and was perfect for where I was. However, as many of you should know by now, they currently run on the PLAY 4 sampler, while virtually everyone else in the world runs on Kontakt. If it wasn't for Native Instrument's large price tag on that player alone, I would have gone that route and gotten other libraries for it.

So, let's take a look at exactly what I got: Symphonic Choirs, Symphonic Orchestra Platinum, Goliath, Gypsy, Pianos, Ra, Silk, Stormdrum 2 Pro, and Voices of Passion.

Choirs: I rarely use this mainly because I don't like to write many pieces for choir, and when I do, I usually write more ethnic-sounding styles that truly need to be recorded live. I was very intrigued by its word building feature and thought this might be great for any epic choir songs I do decide to write without using an actual epic choir. When people say that the word builder is awesome, that's quite a stretch. Yeah, it's cool to be able to form your own words, but you've got to remember, these words aren't super clear like they would be if you asked a group of real people to sing them. I find it best for creating gibberish that sounds like Latin, honestly. For example, one project that will be released around the turn of the year called for a type of gibberish that I tested with choirs. Because choirs takes up so much memory and processing power and because it didn't really say the words I had created in an understandable manner, I found it to be useless and just recorded a live choir instead. Overall, in comparison to other similar libraries, I'd have to give this a letter grade of B. This is because there aren't too many choir libraries out there, and as I said, I just record live, so I have no reason to try to compare. As just a library, the grade would be lower, perhaps as a C or something in that average range.

Symphonic Orchestra Platinum: This is my most used library. It comes with a full, four section range of mostly traditional orchestral instruments. It is just fine for people who like to compose casually or who are not very skilled, but it also has some real setbacks. First, many of its samples have noise in the background in random notes. That can get annoying really quickly. Second, the master keyswitch files seem to be on a round robin preset that is not the same as some of the standalone articulations. They mostly alternate between two hits, which becomes really obvious in staccato arrangements, especially if you are not following a hard-soft (forte-mezzoforte/piano) pattern. These also take up a fairly large amount of memory and processing, so a lot of computers cannot handle many instances of SO instruments being opened. If you are clever enough, you can use just one instance of PLAY to track many different instruments, but that is a topic for another time. Finally, the samples are very bright, probably due to heavy EQ and processing before packaging them up into the program. So, let's talk about each individual section of SO Platinum.

  • Strings: My most used of the four sections. They are so flippin' bright, but the proper use of EQ can fix that and appease my actual string-playing friends. They do a good job of including articulations and group sizings for different needs, but some groupings clearly took precedence over others. There are 18 violins, 11 violins, 10 viole, 10 celli, and 9 double basses for the largest of orchestral arrangements. It is super annoying that the 18 and 11 violins don't have the same articulations. One of them does not have a pizzicato. I think one might not even have a good staccato or marcato setting. So, if you are hoping to have a true violin 1 section and violin 2 section, this is not the library for you. You'll more than likely have to use two 18 violin sections half of the time or assign certain articulations to the violas or cellos. Next, there is a rather pitiful chamber level of about 4 or so of each instrument. You basically get a legato setting with maybe one or two other articulations (and that's how it is in the brass and winds too). Finally, they offer solo versions of each instrument, and they pick the slack back up by offering a good number of articulations. They also offer full, all-in-one string and entire orchestra sections as additional articulation presets. Harp and harpsichord are also included in this section.
  • Brass: I use this one a lot too. It is very similar to the strings. Being fairly bright, it sometimes has to be EQ'd appropriately on the high end, but sometimes, its brightness can work to your advantage, especially with trombones. Because brass sections don't need to be as large, they come in at 4 trumpets, 6 French horns, and 4 trombones. The articulations for the trumpets are extremely annoying because they are basically spread out over that grouping, the 2 trumpet grouping, and the two versions of a solo trumpet. To cover a wide range of playing techniques, you would probably have to use all four. There are also 3 Wagner tuben, and if you don't know what those are, look 'em up on YouTube or something and then read a book about Richard Wagner. Aside from the larger groupings and the two solo trumpets, it also includes solo versions of a piccolo trumpet, French horn, trombone, and a tuba to round off your low end.
  • Winds: My saddest of sections, which I try to use a lot, but it is clear they did not put as much effort into it. For the top end, you get 3 clarinets, 3 flutes, and 3 oboes with a good number of articulations. However, the solo instruments are superior in this group. Together, the solo bassoon and contrabassoon cover a wide range of beautiful low end articulations, but because of the instrument ranges, and the fact that both don't cover all of the articulations, I often find myself having to switch an arrangement around to make up for it. If they put more into these two instruments alone, the SO project would have been so much better. The three solo flutes are piccolo, regular, and alto, all of which are fairly decent. The solo oboe and english horns are also pretty good. Finally, there is a solo clarinet and a solo bass clarinet.
  • Percussion: This is a fairly decent library. I use it for a wide range of cymbal and gong sounds. I rarely use the actual drums because I like Stormdrum better, but the metals and woods also offer nice selections. The one frustrating thing about this library is that most instruments are triggered by the same MIDI notes. Because you can load multiple different instruments and samples to be triggered as one instrument, they really should have organized it in a way that would allow you to load lots of instruments as a sort of all-in-one percussion player. This is different from using one instance of PLAY to track multiple, but separate instruments. If I want a tambourine and a triangle to load, I need to open two instances anyway because they are both placed in the same 12-note range. C'mon guys, you had 88 choices (not really, but, who's keeping track?). By loading both, if you press C2, for example, whatever sample is on C2 for the triangle and tambo will sound. That's why they shouldn't be placed in the same range. If you are lucky or want to spend a bit of time mixing and matching, you may be able to find a cymbal combination with your triangles or a gong combination with your drums. It comes with lots of other cool metals, like anvils and sleigh bells. The glockenspiel, which I want to use a lot, is a touch disappointing. There is a lot of noise in its louder articulation, and many of the hits sound like they clip. The mellow articulation is basically worthless, since you can never hear it. Lately, I've been going with the celesta or even crotales. In its woods, there are castanets, a marimba, (the tambourines are actually here), a washboard, a xylophone, and more. There's even a Steinway piano, but it was only recorded at the stage mic level. 
Mic'ing is a huge deal with EWSO and the Hollywood Series, so if you only buy gold versions, you are for sure screwed. In gold, you only get stage mics and might as well throw the whole thing away. The close ones are super important to have access to, even if you don't always use them, and the surround (plus the additional two mics in HS) offer even more possibilities. B- is a generous grade for EWSO.

Goliath: This is basically a demo of their other libraries. It pretty much gives you the worst everything else has to offer, plus general MIDI. The only plus about it is that it takes up very little processing and memory. I do use it occasionally to fill in an out there instrument that I can't get anywhere else. For example, I have no other access to saxes right now, and I hate myself every time I use the ones in Goliath. This gets a D, hands down, and should not be considered a high quality library. Next!

Gypsy: Another library that is easy on your computer, this offers a rich solo violin that can easily be overused. It's kind of a hidden gem, but the word is definitely getting out. It also offers some nice classical and acoustic guitars and many instruments in the accordion family. Check it out to discover more. B+

Pianos: This is the mother of resource suckers. The detail and quality is huge though. I don't know that another library could beat this one in quality. They'd probably tie. However, you will experience that lack of realness if you make it sound too pretty. My only concern with this library is that it corrupts a lot, for me at least. I don't know if it is the library or Logic Pro, which I am currently considering leaving. It doesn't matter though because neither Apple nor East West have the greatest customer service (Apple is way worse), and they will both blame each other for any problems. Perhaps it is me. I do like to have a lot of naturalness in my notes by spreading out their actual positions ever so slightly, so rather than triggering 6 notes at exactly the same time, it has to trigger them in a sequence that is almost exactly the same time. Perhaps it can't handle it and that is why the notes come out choppy. I did recently find that if I leave the piano track highlighted when I play back or export, I do seem to have fewer problems. This glitch happens with pianos from any EW library, not just Pianos, so A- for this one. Let's just hope that solution sticks.

Ra: This is like a rushed version of silk. It doesn't offer too many articulations and is pretty studio-ified, but if you need world instruments, this should be a nice little boost to your collection. It doesn't tax your resources and is fairly reliable, though back before I got my whole CCC fixed (from too much corruption) it was one of the libraries that would do a similar thing to pianos with certain instruments. B- seems like a fair grade.

Silk: I really like this library when I use it. I just wish it had more instruments. It focuses specifically on China, India, and the Persian empire. There is a lot more detail and more articulations are included than in Ra, so even if instruments do overlap from Ra's wider, world collection, Silk is pretty much always better. The small Chinese Di Zi seems to randomly turn off. Let's hope that was fixed in my recent endeavor, since I haven't used it in a while. Other than that, the instruments are pretty reliable, and I don't know that you could find better non-Western set of pre-recorded instruments out there. Definitely in the A class along with pianos. You assign the +s and -s as you like.

Stormdrum 2 (Pro): I use this one a ton. They have great drums, so I'm not sure why people don't rave about them as much as some of the other libraries out there, like the Drums of War, by Cinesamples. The variety is pretty good too, as you get a few rock kits, traditional orchestral drums, and a ton of foreign drums, such as the taiko (and many alterations), roman war drums, earthquake combos, etc. The list is quite extensive, so you should look up the complete list on the soundsonline site if you want to know the specifics. One thing I will say is that the metals are just as great as the drums. Plus, they have included sound design material. Some of the drum hits do feel like they clip though, and some of the room ambiences and accidental noises are undesirable, but it is still pretty stable. B+

Voices of Passion: A pretty handy little library if you like solo vocalists. I'm married to one, so I get even better options, but this is great for styles she doesn't sing in. You get an American lady, which for me is useless, since I know enough of them. You get a Bulgarian woman, which sounds almost as much Middle Eastern as she does European, so she can be used in surprisingly more ways that you would have thought possible. However, her EQ is super muffled, so expect to raise the high end and cut the lows dramatically. There are ladies from India and Syria as well, if you want more authentic Middle Eastern or Indian vocal runs. Finally, a singer from Wales rounds out the team. I've never used her in a project, but I'm fairly confident she sounded great when I was fooling around with her vocal abilities. It's not the biggest library, but they are very generous with the amount of recordings they include for each woman. If you are looking for male vocals, this is the wrong library. I'll give this one a B. It's right where it should be for that high quality level library. Only a real person can probably reach that elite grade.

With all that I have, I wish I'd sacrificed Goliath or even the Voices of Passion (or possibly Choirs) for the Ministry of Rock or Fab Four because none of the rock drum kits are good in any of the libraries I have, and I'm often stuck doing them in another program with my secret weapon (though it's not round robin) or recording live, both of which take significantly longer.

So, there you are. If you are considering the CCC, pause. The CCC2 is now out. Get that inste... pause again. Hollywood is better than Symphonic, but the CCC2 only comes with the gold version of Hollywood. Remember what I said about that? My friend just bought it and instantly regretted it. Luckily, the CCC2 Professional is also out. That has the diamond versions with all of the mics, and it comes on a pocket flash drive which is mountains handier than the hunky SATA drive you'd get with the original CCC.

If you can afford the $400 USD for Kontakt or wait until they have a 50% off sale (usually on Black Friday), I'd recommend that, and then you can try to get a discount on the full Komplete if you need more B grade, high quality, instruments. In fact, they may even give you more than EW, but you definitely don't get to pick and choose. Ultimate is not exactly cheap either, but it can be discounted too if you time it right.

I am about to do a special 6 month trial deal with Vienna, so that will be my next review. From there, if I decide not to buy a package deal from them, I will be considering the Albion series. I hope you enjoyed this article and found it to be helpful as you debate for hours over what is the best library to buy.

Be sure to also check out what's going on at www.natecombsmedia.com!