Get ’em while the gettin’s good

I have a thing for older orchestral libraries. I got into this kind of music through game soundtracks like Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2 and Morrowind and it’s never really bothered me that the samples used back then didn’t have realistic legatos or whatever. There’s a morbid fixation with ultra-realism in virtual orchestration nowadays that I just don’t get. But then my goal has never been scoring Hollywood blockbusters so what do I know.

But there’s something that troubles me even more with modern libraries, and that’s the gradual shift from open or multi-format releases to closed properietary formats, file encryption and bundled “sample players” that lack all but the most basic of editing features. This is a disturbing trend as not only does it mean locking people into certain library/software solutions (“if you want to use our library, you must use our software”), it also means zero flexibility and zero future, uh, proofness. What if I already have a sampler ten times more advanced than your sample player and prefer to use it? And what’s to say that your company is still around to provide patches and updates for the Windows/OS X version I’m using ten years from now?

It’s short-sighted, greedy and ridiculous. At least with older sample libraries you could get them in different formats and actually access all the different wave files so if all else fails, you can always recreate everything in a sampler of your choice. Considering the money these companies ask for their products I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the customers have at least some way of salvaging things if worse comes to worst.

OK, rant over. This is a major can of worms (and I haven’t even gotten started on copy protection yet!) but this wasn’t actually what I was going to talk about, just a bit of background.

So anyway.

A few days ago, while browsing around for percussion loop libraries, I stumbled across four gems on Namely Zero-G String Textures, Zero-G Woodwinds & Brass, Soundscan Acoustic & Synth Choirs and Soundscan Complete Harp.

Make no mistake here folks, these might be old, small libraries and unsophisticated by today’s standards, but the value for money here is nothing short of incredible. Especially Complete Harp which is amazing. A multisampled, velocity-layered (pp, p, mf) orchestral harp complete with a whole bunch of glisses, chords, loops and other one-shots. For £9.99!

The other stuff is good too even if the harp steals the show. Acoustic & Synth Choirs has a good children’s choir with two velocities and several vowel articulations, plus a small selection of mixed choir samples and a female choir. The Zero-G strings and brass are a bit timid-sounding as there’s only one velocity and the sections are small. But definitely useable for more intimate arrangements and/or for divisi and layering with other samples. The brass library surprised me a bit by having cornet, flugelhorn and piccolo trumpet but no tuba (!), but other than that there’s sustain, staccato and even sforzando samples for almost all solo instruments and sections. The winds have no section samples and are kind of meh but hey, at that price you can’t really complain.

Now, the Zero-G libraries are anything but instant gratification. It’s just numbered wave files, arranged into folders. Remember that this is nineties stuff, originally released on audio cd’s. You were supposed to actually sample everything with your hardware sampler, note by note. So it’ll take you some work before you can use it — though the process is significantly more painless now than back in the day. Renaming all files, mapping them and creating loops where needed took me a large part of the weekend. And I have still to fix the tuning on a lot of samples. Well worth it though, IMO. One can never have too many samples to choose from.

Also, I know there’s a lot of people who can’t afford/are unwilling to invest in the big libraries like EWQLSO or whatever but want to get into virtual orchestration. Here’s your chance! Add some percussion to the above and you’ll have a basic orchestra that can easily be expanded with freebies or other low-cost libraries. Strings too wimpy? Layer them with Cakewalk Sound Center Orchestral Strings ($19.95). And no you don’t need the Sound Center player, it’s just wav’s and sfz files.

I know, this might sound weird coming from the author of a free orchestral library. But SSO is not an end-all solution and more importantly, it’s not a real sampled orchestra. For more realism and a wider palette of sounds to choose from, you’re going to have to part with some money sooner or later.

Not to mention that the Zero-G and Soundscan releases are a dying breed. My advice is grab these libraries and other oldies as fast as you can. Before they go the way of the old Roland cd’s and disappear from the market completely, or before the rights holders realize that there’s money to be had by re-releasing stuff as virtual instruments with fancy graphics and zero tweakability.

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