Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 5/5 Stars
EastWest have taken the part of the map marked ‘here be dragons’ and made it very much their own.
Back in the July 2021 issue of SOS, Dave Stewart reviewed EastWest’s impressive Hollywood Orchestra Opus Edition. This is a massive library capable of equally massive results. If your project requires a conventional orchestral sound, short of recording an actual orchestra (and the budget that requires), Hollywood Orchestra is a top‑class choice.
However, for composers working on film, TV or game projects that are set in olden times or in fantasy worlds, a conventional (modern) orchestral sound palette might not be quite what’s required. EastWest’s latest release caters exactly for that need; Hollywood Fantasy Orchestra. Fantasy Orchestra provides five sections — Strings, Brass, Winds, Percussion and Voices — each populated with sample‑based sounds designed to capture a more medieval mood.
As with Hollywood Orchestra, the Opus front end (standalone or plug‑in) is used to assess these sounds and a library‑specific edition of the powerful Orchestrator — suitably titled Fantasy Orchestrator — is also available. All of the instruments have been recorded in the same studio as the Hollywood Orchestra Opus Edition and using the same microphone options so, sonically, you can easily achieve a coherent sound should you wish to combine the two libraries.
The full library comes in at around 145GB and it’s available as a one‑time purchase or via a ComposerCloud+ subscription. The individual sound sections and Fantasy Orchestrator can also be purchased individually. So, without further ado, let’s discard our armour, chuck a log on the open fire, grab a goblet of mead, and explore a modern take on some sounds designed to take us — sonically — into the past.
For Fantasy Orchestra’s string section, EastWest provide ensembles (usually three instruments) for a number of alternative string instruments. These include the viola da gamba (to fill the role of the more conventional cello), hardanger fiddle (replacing violin/viola), lutes and mountain dulcimers. Two different hurdy gurdy instruments are also included. These instruments all provide the more authentic tones required to capture the style — for example, even a few notes from the lutes or dulcimers are enough to easily place you in that virtual world.
These genre‑specific instruments are complemented by small ensembles of ‘low strings’ (six celli and four basses) and ‘high strings’ (eight violins and six violas). These sound excellent and are a sensible addition, making it easy to fill out the underscore of a composition, or add some additional battle‑ready power, without necessarily needing to source sounds from elsewhere.
Each of these instruments/ensembles is supplied with multiple performance articulations with both single and keyswitchable presets available. The Opus front end lets you switch between Soft, Classic and Epic versions, each of which employs a different set of microphone positions, reverb and sample layers to produce its distinct sound. Opus does, of course, give you full control over the reverb and microphone options should you wish to tweak the sounds further.
Do I need to say it? Yes, all these instruments sound very good indeed. Don’t be deterred by the relatively small ensemble sizes. They allow a wonderful stereo image to be created and, while there are no ‘solo’ instruments (hurdy gurdy aside), they can easily go from small and intimate to packing a punch. For example, the voila da gamba, a favourite of Baroque music, sounds truly epic when played flat out (it can get wonderfully strident and aggressive) but is also capable of being beautifully sombre when the Soft version is used. As elsewhere within the library, for the shorter articulation systems, MIDI velocity can control playing dynamics while, for the sustained/legato articulations, by default, MIDI CC11 (Expression) is used.
The sounds of each of these instruments will be instantly familiar to fans of fantasy films or video games and, sonically, they are right on target. The obvious caveat to make is that having the right sound palette is only part of the equation; it will also help if you can play performances that sound authentic to each instrument. That is, of course, our responsibility rather than that of EastWest, although as we will see later, you can get a considerable helping hand in this regard from Fantasy Orchestrator.
The same underlying approach can be found in the Fantasy Brass section. In this case, flugelhorns replace trumpets and ensembles of Wagner tubas and alpenhorns take the role of French horns. Each of these instruments is again supplied as an ensemble of three, comes with multiple performance articulations and with Soft, Classic and Epic sound styles. And to fill out those cues that need a full‑on powerful brass, a low brass ensemble consisting of three bass trombones, two cimbassos and one tuba is provided.
Combine the Wagner tubas and the low brass ensemble and your brass is going to have hearts pounding. It gets big, bold, aggressive and raspy... and absolutely magnificent.
The dynamics of the whole brass section are very impressive, spanning gentle to majestic with ease (the flugelhorns are great in this role, as are the alpenhorns at the upper end of their register). However, by the time you get into Epic mode, the power becomes more obvious. For that gigantic film (or game) battle scene, combine the Wagner tubas and the low brass ensemble and your brass is going to have hearts pounding. It gets big, bold, aggressive and raspy... and absolutely magnificent.
The instrument collection for Fantasy Winds includes pairs of both high and low Irish whistles. These are staples of Celtic music, both ancient and modern, and their melodic impact can add a flavour of magical or mystical in an instant. A pair of Renaissance flutes (a form of wooden recorder) provide a nice breathy sound that is perhaps flute‑like if a little less soft. However, if you need to go even more gentle and soft, then the ensemble of four ocarinas provides a beautiful option, especially in the lower half of their register.
The final element is a trio ensemble of Uilleann pipes. I’ll cop flack from my Scottish friends, but the Uilleann pipes are like a more expressive (and frankly, more tuneful) version of the (perhaps more familiar) Scottish bagpipes. Uilleann pipes are again a staple of Celtic music, both ancient and modern (check out the work of Davy Spillane or Steáfán Hannigan as examples) and if you want to provide a musical signature for a wild landscape or medieval village, this is an easy way to do it. As elsewhere within the library, all the Fantasy Wind instruments are available in Soft, Classic and Epic modes to accommodate the mood your cue requires.
While the Fantasy Orchestra percussion section features some more conventional options such as snare and tom ensembles, the bulk of the choices are more exotic (and suitably traditional) instruments. The heavy artillery is supplied courtesy of ensemble options for gran cassa, large taikos and nagado‑daiko. All three demonstrate impressive dynamics and low‑end girth. For something less obviously bombastic, and continuing the Celtic theme, there is a very characterful ensemble of three bodhrans, ideal when you need a rhythmic pulse but without the weight provided by the larger drums.
For a slightly different flavour, the ensemble of nagara (from India) and ashiko (from Africa) can go from powerful to crisp and tight; it’s an exotic sound that certainly evokes a sense of the cultures they originate from. More unusual is the ‘nagara rub FX’, a preset based on sounds created by rubbing the drum in various ways. It’s as much sound design as drum; dark and somewhat frightening. Fantasy aside, you could stick these in any horror context and they would work brilliantly to put your audience behind the sofa.
The collection also has a good selection of top‑end percussion. The instruments include the relatively small Balinese ceng ceng cymbals for a bright, but relatively short, splash of sound. A small ensemble of crotales cymbals provides the option for some delicate chromatic lines, while your supply of larger metals includes a gong and cymbal ensemble with plenty of impressive low end and splash should you need it. There is also the Orchestral Metallurgy ensemble (large metal objects being struck) and a chromatic orchestral bell ensemble goes from ‘church bell’ up to ‘medium sized clock bell’ should you need it. A goatnail‑based shaker provides a dry, rattle‑like option, while the ‘Metal Shaker’ preset provides a somewhat tighter sound, but both are perfect for adding a rhythmic accent. Finally, a North African krakeb does the castanet duties, and their metal construction gives them a very distinctive sound.
Vocals can play an important role in fantasy‑style scores, so it’s great to see a dedicated Voices section included. Across multiple presets, the sounds are divided into two groups. First, there are full male and female choir samples (including presets that combine both) covering a range of different sustained vowel sounds. With Soft, Classic and Epic modes available, as well as dynamics control via CC11, when it comes to full choir ensembles providing either a soft ‘ooo’ to caress your ears, or a ranging ‘ahhh’ as the clouds part and our fallen hero ascends to heaven (OK, you get the idea), these sound very impressive indeed. My only wish‑list item might have been for some staccato presets for these choir instruments.
The second element of the Voices section is a number of different solo voice presets provided by the beautiful vocals of Norwegian singer Merethe Soltvedt. The various presets include sustained vowels in both lyrical (more dramatic) and vibrato (for higher energy) styles and separate presets for ‘ah’ and ‘oo’ vowels using true legato. The latter are beautiful, with a fabulous vibrato that enters as you sustain a note. There are also a set of very expressive key‑based phrase presets that contain collections of individual phrases, some short and some long, that can easily be chained together. Finally, there are presets containing a collection of 60 words taken from Tolkien’s Elvish language. No, I don’t know what they mean either, so the sung phrases I construct from them (there is a convenient keyswitch‑based preset that makes this very easy) may well make very little sense... but they will sound beautiful.
As with Hollywood Orchestra Opus Edition, all of these Hollywood Fantasy Orchestra sounds are accessed through EastWest’s Opus front end. This has continued to evolve and, for me at least, appears to be an efficient and slick platform with a well‑organised Browser page. You can use individual instances for each preset or load multiple presets into a single instance and assign each to a specific MIDI channel.
For many users, the Play page may then offer all the sound tweaking you need but, for those wishing to go deeper, the Mix page provides plenty of additional controls and access to a comprehensive set of effects options, including a number of SSL processing emulations. EastWest have a detailed reference manual available for Opus on their website for those that do want to dig in.
In the review of the original Hollywood Orchestra Opus Edition, one element that Dave Stewart was particularly impressed with was the Orchestrator. That engine is adapted here to accommodate the five sections of Fantasy Orchestra but, fundamentally, it operates in the same fashion. This engine has been created for EastWest by Sonuscore, who have an impressive track record in designing ‘performance engines’ that can take even the most basic of MIDI input (a simple sequence of triad‑based chords, for example) and, in real time, transform it into a fully‑fledged musical arrangement. Fantasy Orchestrator lets you do just that with the sounds from Fantasy Orchestra. And, in use, it is almost magical.
The [Orchestrator] engine has been created for EastWest by Sonuscore, who have an impressive track record in designing ‘performance engines’ that can take even the most basic of MIDI input (a simple sequence of triad‑based chords, for example) and, in real time, transform it into a fully‑fledged musical arrangement.
The Orchestrator ships with a huge collection of presets that are divided into three categories; Ensembles, Ostinatos and Scores. The Ensembles provide various instrument groupings (for example, ‘Brass Long’ or ‘Strings And Choir’ or ‘Full Orchestra Short’), each of which automatically loads the necessary individual sounds into Opus. Each sound has been pre‑configured to respond to particular notes within your MIDI chord input, so the instruments automatically arrange themselves as you play. Dynamics is controlled via the mod wheel for easy creation of crescendo/decrescendo performances. It’s incredibly easy to use but can sound truly epic. You can, of course, swap individual sounds in/out of the presets and change how they respond to the incoming MIDI should you wish.
Things get taken a little further with the Ostinato presets as, in this case, the majority of the sounds then make use of their individual step sequencers to generate a rhythmic component to their playback. The presets span a wide range of half‑note to 16th‑note rhythmic options (including triplet choices) and for simple underscore elements to drive a cue along, these presets are incredibly useful.
I commented earlier that having a genre‑appropriate orchestra of sounds is only part of the equation if you are trying to create convincing music in the fantasy style. Equally important is the skill to play and combine those instruments in an authentic way. This is where the Scores presets come in and, if you want the maximum wow factor from those few simple MIDI chords, this is where it is at. By the time we get to these Scores presets, the step sequencers associated with many of the instruments have melodic elements assigned to them. The engine very cleverly lets these step sequencers follow the chord changes/voicings in a musical fashion so, as you play, it’s almost impossible to generate duff notes. Again, the dynamics can be controlled by the mod wheel and, with just a few chords, your whole Fantasy Orchestra can spring into glorious life.
If you are able to let your monitoring system off the leash for a few minutes, the results are truly a thing to behold; Fantasy Orchestra can take your simple chords and transform them into something epic. Or something intimate, or melancholic, or mysterious, or magical, or majestic, or doom‑laden... Because each of the Scores presets is designed with a particular musical mood in mind so, whatever the style of cue you need to create, there is a starting point for you to explore. Add an instrument or two with a suitable top‑melodic line and the deal is sealed.
Accomplished composers can, of course, choose to create their compositions without leaning on the Orchestrator, and Fantasy Orchestra provides an excellent palette of sounds to do just that. However, whether you are just starting out on your journey into composing fantasy‑style scores (in which case, this is a brilliant educational tool) or an experienced composer within the genre needing to get some ideas together in double‑quick time to hit a deadline, Fantasy Orchestrator is a heck of an assistant. You can create your own presets and, for example, I can imagine this working well if your score returns to particular themes or motifs for certain characters or locations. And the system is MIDI driven; it happily responds to your tempo choices and includes MIDI export to your DAW for further editing or use with other virtual instruments. The whole Orchestrator concept is brilliant. Hats off to Sonuscore and EastWest; it’s the very tasty icing on the top of an already impressive cake.
Compared to the more conventional palette of EastWest’s Hollywood Orchestra, Fantasy Orchestra is perhaps something of a niche product. However, this library represents an absolutely fabulous sound set for composers working in film, TV or video game environments where a score that captures a mediaeval or fantasy sound — and can place the audience in that ancient world — is required.
EastWest have knocked it out the park with Fantasy Orchestra. It’s epic in almost every regard.
Opus provides a very slick front end for all these sounds and, while Fantasy Orchestra is not quite as hefty as Hollywood Orchestra in terms of the total library size, it almost goes without saying that the better the computer host, the smoother the experience is likely to be. That said, the minimum specifications — hard drive space/performance aside — are likely to be easily surpassed by anyone who is able to keep their music production computer reasonably up to date.
No, Fantasy Orchestra is not cheap as a one‑off purchase but, for working composers, it’s just another reason to argue that EastWest’s ComposerCloud+ subscription offers exceptional value for money. EastWest are also fond of the occasional sale and both one‑off and subscription prices can be found with considerable savings if you get your timing right. If you need further convincing before taking the plunge, EastWest have an excellent set of multitrack demos you can audition on their website. Equally, you should also check out Dom Sigalas’ YouTube channel, where he has a recent video that walks through composing a full cue using Fantasy Orchestra; it’s very impressive.
If composing within this specific musical genre is something you aspire to, then Fantasy Orchestra provides a brilliant one‑stop option to help you live out your own musical fantasy. These are big screen (or big game console) ready sounds, and you will undoubtedly be hearing them in many soundtracks. Fantasy Orchestra is simply excellent.
- Fabulous collection of virtual sounds that are ideal for the fantasy music genre.
- Opus front end is impressive.
- The powerful Fantasy Orchestrator turns simple chords into a full arrangement with ease.
- Can sound absolutely epic.
- A serious commitment as a one‑off purchase.
EastWest have knocked it out the park with Fantasy Orchestra. It’s epic in almost every regard.
Fantasy Orchestra $995, individual libraries from $99, ComposerCloud+ subscription $19.99 per month/$199 per year. Prices include VAT.
Fantasy Orchestra $995, individual libraries from $99, ComposerCloud+ subscription $19.99 per month/$199 per year.