The search for the perfect virtual string sample library has been going on since the dawn of time. Well, maybe not quite that long, but if you're a musician, you know what I mean. Where did it all start? I really have no idea, but for me it was the Emu Proteus/2. This synth/sample playback module was either the first or at least one of the first good-quality orchestral sample libraries. As soon as I heard it, I knew I had to check it out. Fast forward to present day (where we have extremely sophisticated software-based sample playback engines) and I felt exactly the same way when I heard Hollywood Strings from EastWest.
EastWest / Quantum Leap Hollywood Strings
Because of its massive size (310GB of approximately 800,000 samples), Hollywood Strings is shipped on a hard drive rather than DVDs, which saves a ton of time for installation. However, the drive is of the internal variety, so you'll either need to install it inside your PC or put it into an external enclosure. The drive I received was a 500GB, 7200 RPM, Western Digital Caviar Black (with a SATA interface, of course). In most cases, this should be good enough for streaming the samples, although EastWest recommends SSD drives for optimal performance.
As its name implies, Hollywood Strings is just that… string sections only, and they cater more toward film scoring rather than the performance of classical orchestral pieces. For a total of 57 players, the library provides 16 first violins, 14 second violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, and 7 basses. Absent are any solo instruments or chamber ensembles. However, the library does provide divisi options for each section, albeit in an unconventional, but effective way. By putting mono microphones up close on the left and right sides of each section, EastWest was able to create mono patches that essentially divide each section in half. These patches work nicely for divisi because of their more intimate sound and also because they were recorded simultaneously to avoid problems with pitch, timing and phase.
Expression and Realism
A wide variety of articulations is included, although not all articulations are available for all instruments. If I were to put them into generic groups, they could be labeled as legato, short notes, sustains, effects, and runs – everything you need to realistically simulate the string sections of an orchestra to recreate that Hollywood soundtrack sound. In addition, multiple finger positions are provided for all sections so that you can specify what notes are played on what string.
To achieve realistic legatos, EastWest went all the way and sampled every note in each instrument's range, both up- and down-bowed. They also included three different types of legato: bow change legato, slurred legato, and portamento sliding legato (although only slurred legato is available for basses). Those aspects, coupled with the sampling of up to 3 dynamics and the inclusion speed control, make legato performances sound indistinguishable from the real thing.
Of course, creating realistic performances is still up to the composer, and Hollywood Strings allows expressiveness to be added in a variety of ways. First and foremost, keyswitches allow you to choose from various loaded articulations, as is common with most sample libraries. Although, some patches allow you to use the mod wheel to switch between some of the short articulations, which can be easier when playing fast passages. For the most part, however, Hollywood Strings employs both expression (MIDI CC 11) and mod wheel so that you can have full control over dynamics/timbre and vibrato simultaneously. Expression provides control of dynamics and mod wheel manages vibrato intensity. These functions are achieved by crossfading between multiple sample layers, and the sound is very smooth. Adding to this are the multiple round-robin samples for short articulations (ranging from 2 to 16, depending on the articulation).
PLAYback and Editing
In addition to the samples, the realism of the Hollywood Strings playback also relies heavily on the EastWest PLAY sample playback engine. PLAY can be run both stand-alone and as a plug-in on both PC and Mac. It provides a Browser for patch management and a Player for patch playback. Multiple patches can be loaded at once so PLAY can be used as a multitimbral player, although EastWest recommends using multiple plug-in instances in order to take advantage of multi-core CPUs. Various controls are available for adjusting MIDI parameters, transposition, polyphony, scripting, etc. However, PLAY falls short in terms of editing. You get control over a patch's tuning and AHDSR envelope, but that's it. Then again, it's doubtful most people using this library will need to do much editing, if at all.
Hollywood Strings in the Studio
In terms of audio routing and mixing, however, PLAY provides a variety of options, and in particular to Hollywood Strings are the five different microphone choices (although only four positions). You get access to Main (approximately 5 rows away from the stage), Mid (at the edge of the stage), Close (right in front of the players), Surround (back of the hall), and Alternate Room (same position as Surround, but alternate mics: Vintage RCA44 Ribbon, similar to mics used in classic Hollywood films). PLAY allows you to mix and match the mic positions to your liking, as well as control the overall volume and panning of the entire plug-in via the Master section. In addition, PLAY includes a high-quality convolution reverb with various impulses that compliment the library very well.
Hollywood Strings = Heavenly Sound
Now before I finish, I do have to mention a couple of things that may give you pause about purchasing this library. One, of course, is the price. Not much can be done about this, although in addition to the Diamond Edition, EastWest provides a lower-cost Gold Edition. In any case, you really can't expect a library of this size and quality to be inexpensive. Believe me when I say, this is a professional, high-quality sample library that can easily be used in final soundtrack productions. Yes, it really does sound that good.
Secondly, you will need a beast of a machine in order to run Hollywood Strings at its full potential. EastWest lists the optimal system as having 64-bit OS/Host, 16GB RAM, and SSD drives. Can you run it on less? Yes, but not nearly as well. Luckily, EastWest has seen fit to separate the more resource-intensive patches into different folders to give you a choice, which can help if your PC isn't quite up to the optimal specs. So, to sum things up, I can easily say that Hollywood Strings is one of the best-sounding sample libraries available. If you write scores for film, TV, or games, Hollywood Strings will give you that large, lush, and spectacular orchestral string sound that audiences love to hear. For more information, visit soundsonline.com.
Additional information: EastWest Hollywood Strings Sample Library