There was a time not awfully long ago when processor speeds were measured in MHz rather than GHz, when hard drives were about the size of a DVD, when RAM was crazy expensive and dragons roamed the land. In fact, the computational power that we take for granted these days was pure sci-fi only a couple of decades ago, and even the most powerful machines of the time would pale in comparison to a low-end smartphone.
But did virtual orchestration as we know it begin with software samplers and multi-gigabyte sample libraries sometime in the 2000’s, once computers became powerful enough to handle the task? Heck, no. Go watch a mid-nineties TV show (some action/adventure-oriented one that is, not Friends or Seinfeld) and chances are you will find that it has a distinctly orchestral soundtrack, though obviously not played by a real orchestra. So what gives?
Well it’s no big mystery, really. While software samplers started gaining some traction in the late nineties with the advent of Tascam Gigasampler, the cost involved was not insignificant. Besides the software and libraries you needed multiple computers in order to do anything useful with it. Which meant this bleeding edge tech — while still cheaper than hiring a real orchestra, which is what made it attractive — was out of most musicians’ reach. Instead, people on a more limited budget had to rely on hardware synthesizers, sound modules and samplers to create virtual orchestral arrangements.
Fast forward to 2018, and there’s this big retro craze going on since a few years back. The eighties and nineties are back in vogue, mini versions of the Commodore 64 and the Nintendo S/NES systems are selling like hot cakes, and hardware that was considered little more than junk only ten years ago command remarkable prices on eBay. That’s all well and good, but what if you’re not interested in SID or OPL3 chips and never were? Fear not. Faking real instruments with synthetic ones was a thing long before personal computers produced their first monophonic beep, so there’s no reason you should miss out just because you happen to be into orchestral music.
Whether you’re reading this out of curiosity, nostalgia or for some more utilitarian reason like, “a client asked me for a vintage VO sound and I don’t even know where to begin”, we’re going to have a look at three completely free alternatives for adding a bit of retro flair to your music and, not any less important, having a bit of fun checking out the orchestral sounds and workflows of yesteryear.
Let me preface the following by pointing out that when I say something like “the samples sound good”, it should be read as “good within the context of what they are, and what time period they are from”. While the quality of some of this might actually surprise you — any of these three are certainly a big step up from, say, the Microsoft GS Wavetable Synth synth in Windows — don’t go thinking that I’m recommending these instruments for modern orchestral productions. They’re charming in their own right and great for composing in a retro style, but will sound absolutely pathetic next to virtually any samples from the past 15 years. You have been warned. Let’s get started!