Hollywood Solo Instruments puts world-class violin, cello and harp sounds at your fingertips.
Some buildings are steeped in musical history. As the world and his wife knows, London’s Abbey Road Studios is famously synonymous with the Beatles’ last album. As a result, nearly half a century on there’s a roaring trade in replica street signs bearing its name, and the hapless Camden Council still have to regularly pay cleaners to remove fans’ scribble from a nearby wall. Other renowned (though less heavily graffitied) UK studios include Trident, Olympic, Air, Brittania Row and Morgan, while over the water names such as Sun, Capitol, Chess, Muscle Shoals, Sunset Sound, Motown’s Hitsville USA and Electric Lady evoke the golden age of recording, when making an album involved rather more than downloading a few beats and vocal samples off the Internet.
We can add one further iconic location to the US list: situated at 6000 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, the studio formerly known as United Western Recorders boasts a staggering tally of hits dating back to 1963, with a stellar client list including everyone from Frank Sinatra to REM. While the rise of home recording forced many recording facilities to close, others adapted to survive, and the purchase of the Hollywood studio complex by EastWest’s Doug Rogers in 2006 saw it repurposed to some extent. Now renamed EastWest Studios, the historic building serves as a recording location for the company’s home-grown sample libraries, as well as continuing to thrive as a facility for pop and movie soundtrack production.
The jewel in EastWest Studios’ sample-library crown is Hollywood Orchestra, a four-volume, 663GB collection which made its debut in 2010 with Hollywood Strings. Over the next four years, the addition of brass, woodwind and orchestral percussion saw the completion of the main part of the symphonic collection. At that stage the library lacked solo strings and harp, but that was recently remedied by the release of Hollywood Solo Instruments, containing harp, solo cello and solo violin. Like the rest of the Hollywood series, the solo instruments were recorded in EastWest Studio 1 by award-winning sound engineer Shawn Murphy, veteran of countless feature film soundtracks. The library works exclusively with EastWest’s proprietary Play sound engine, which runs stand-alone and as a plug-in on Mac and Windows systems.
Hollywood Harp, Hollywood Solo Cello and Hollywood Solo Violin can’t be purchased outright as separate instruments: you can only buy them in Harp+Cello+Violin or Cello+Violin bundles, a tough break if you only want the harp. However, subscribers to EastWest’s ComposerCloud service (which offers access to the company’s entire catalogue of 10,000 virtual instruments) can download them separately. In this review we’ll take a detailed look at each of the three solo instruments.
In the words of the old Judy Garland song, “Something inside of me started a symphony... Zing! Went the strings of my heart.” (Cue ecstatic, swooning harp glissando.) Perhaps no other orchestral instrument expresses feelings of love and blissful wellbeing better than the harp; however, the instrument is capable of much more than slushy romantic outbursts, especially when used in dark, atonal music or to play bass lines.
As is usual in the Hollywood series, the musician who performed the samples has not been credited, but their identify should be fairly easy to ascertain: simply attend a few orchestral recitals in the greater Los Angeles area and keep an eye open for a harpist with conspicuously red, swollen fingertips who occasionally winces and yelps with pain while performing a loud glissando, the aftermath of playing thousands of samples for this library. Chromatically sampled at multiple dynamics over six and a half octaves from C1 to G7, this fine-sounding concert harp is presented in three folders: ‘Individual Articulations’, ‘Maestro’ (combo instruments made up of multiple articulations) and ‘FX’ (including glissandi).
Unlike the piano, a harp has no damper pedal: notes ring on indefinitely until the player muffles them with his or her palm. In order to avoid a pile-up of endlessly ringing strings, the main ‘Pluck Long’ patch uses an ADSR envelope to hasten notes’ natural fade time. If you prefer a more staccato delivery (perhaps for playing rhythmic figures), you can further reduce the default release time of three seconds down to one second. Happily, the Play sound engine has large, hard-to-miss ADSR controls on its GUI for this purpose.
I liked the full, mature, enveloping tone of the harp as heard in the low and middle register of ‘Pluck Long’, but felt its high B5 to G7 range was a little thin. Fortunately, the thumb-plucked performances in the ‘Thumb Pick’ patch provide a fuller, more rounded, classic harp sound in the top range, while the ‘Repetition’ patch (made up of samples extracted from repeated-note performances, a time-honoured sampling technique) sounds fatter still.
If you actually want a thinner sound, try the more nasal tones of ‘Pr s de la table’ (‘near the soundboard’) samples, which resemble a Japanese koto at high velocities. In a similar vein, the ‘Nail Pick’ articulation’s hard, precise attack will cut through even the densest of arrangements.
Other ear-catching deliveries include flam-like double hits (which if used sparingly can add interest and expression to a harp melody), some pretty harmonics with a charming and distinctive soft attack, and a pleasant, murmuring bisbigliando tremolo style. In a break with convention, the latter articulation’s samples are unlooped, which means the tremolo thrumming stops after five seconds or so. This limits the bisbigliando samples’ flexibility, so I hope EastWest will get round to looping them.
Do angels really play harps? Search me. The Bible indirectly suggests that they once might have (see Revelation 14:2), but in this day and age I imagine tech-savvy angels perform soothing music via a DJ app on their iPhone, rather than lugging a cumbersome instrument between Heaven and Earth. Nevertheless, the harp-angel association endures, leading EastWest to name one of their harp folders ‘Gliss Angelic’ (sadly, there are no plans for a ‘Gliss Diabolic’ version).
Beautifully executed and recorded, the harp glissandi in this library sound fabulous. Opulent-sounding straight sweeps up or down the strings are presented in the ‘Gliss’ patch, while ‘Gliss Angelic’ contains more elaborate, two-handed, ascending multi-octave flourishes which dip and soar excitingly en route to their high, heavenly target notes. The angelic patch contains 10 basic glissando types, each of which has a variation mapped on an adjacent key: a complete set of alternative takes, mirroring the format of the first 20 samples, is presented three octaves higher on the keyboard.
These glissandi feature a mixture of common and unconventional scales: in the first camp, there’s major, major pentatonic (equivalent to the black notes on a piano), melodic minor and an evocative five-tone minor scale of F, G, Ab, C and Db, often used in Japanese koto music. In the other corner are three interestingly weird and exotic scales: two of them are incorrectly documented as Phrygian and Locrian, while the third, based on a wonderfully eerie, atonal note set of G#, B, C, D#, E and F, has no name that I’m aware of — the manual simply says ‘minor’, which really doesn’t do it justice! No whole-tone or chromatic glissandi are included, something of an omission in a library of this type.
While there’s plenty of harmonic variety, the musical implementation of the glissandi is patchy: major-scale versions are provided only in the keys of C and B, the melodic minor variant plays only in Am and Dm, and the major pentatonic (a classic harp effect) is restricted to F, F# and Eb. All other above mentioned scales play in one key only. So, even bearing in mind that the major scale doubles as a relative minor and can also be used as the Lydian mode of its subdominant key (as we say in the trade), anyone seeking a specific glissando scale in a particular key is likely to be disappointed. Thankfully, help is at hand in the shape of the ‘Gliss Technique’ patch, which can be successfully used to manually create your own glissando sweeps.
Also included in the harp ‘FX’ folder are string squeaks, scrapes and body hits, and some grinding, tambura-like buzzy bass-string noises which sound monstrous when drastically detuned.
As an alternative to the individual articulations, you can dial up Hollywood Harp’s Maestro patches, which combine different playing styles. Flying the flag for an old-school sampling technique, ‘Sustain RR’ uses keyboard velocity to trigger the Nail Pick articulation on your loudest notes, while lower velocities cycle between ‘Pluck Long’ and ‘Thumb Pick’ in alternating round-robin fashion. Though that sounds complicated, the musical effect is pleasantly natural and expressive. ‘Angels Harmonics’ (that word again — I can almost hear the beating of wings) also uses velocity to switch between the ‘Gliss Technique’ and harmonics performances. A nice idea, but in practice the idea fails because the harmonics only sound in the top 123-127 velocity range, which requires an excessively heavy touch. It’s a shame Play doesn’t allow users to set their own velocity switch points.
Other ‘Maestro’ patches use the mod wheel to switch between (for example) straight and tremolo notes. This could be handy, but I’d prefer it if the tremolos could be subtly faded in; as it stands, they burst in like drunken gatecrashers at a prayer meeting when the mod wheel reaches a critical position. While these velocity-switched and mod-wheel-driven patches can be creatively inspiring, the combo patch likely to get the most use is the ‘KS Master’, containing eight keyswitchable articulations.
Solo strings, with their subtle, ever-changing inflections of bowing, dynamics and vibrato, are among the hardest instruments to sample successfully. Replicating legato melodies is particularly challenging, as the timbre and attack of individual pitches within a flowing line is very different from that of a detached note; players also sometimes glide up or down to a note, creating a ‘moving target’ which is hard to pin down with samples. EastWest’s Hollywood Solo Violin meets the melody line issue head-on, offering several types of legato patches optimised for different musical situations. The library uses the industry-standard ‘true legato’ sampling, a labour-intensive technique whereby all of an instrument’s playable intervals up to an octave in both directions are sampled, then programmed so that the user hears a real-life interval transition on changing from note to note.
A quick rifle through the solo violin’s various legato patches quickly led to my favourite: ‘Lyrical Vib’, a thoroughly playable instrument which awakened my instinct to play, improvise and compose. The vibrato (which is indeed lyrical) starts soon after the start of the note, and sounds sweet and emotional without going over the top. If you prefer a less restrained approach, the ‘Leg Exp Vib’ patch lets rip with a more impassioned, overtly romantic vibrato and strong bow attack, suitable for climactic cadenzas and fiery folk melodies. Though the library contains no played portamentos, many of the wide high-pitched legato intervals feature a quick, subtle portamento slide in their transitions, a natural performance artefact which enhances the legatos’ realism.
While string players often play a series of legato notes within a single bow movement, there comes a point where a change of bow direction is required, either to elongate a line or to add an accent. The ‘bow-change’ legatos provided here have a good, assertive attack which can be used to add emphasis to the more liquid-sounding ‘slur’ legatos. Other options include a true-legato ‘Runs’ patch designed for fast scalic runs, which operates on intervals of up to three semitones. I found it worked well for its intended purpose, though it sounded slightly mechanical on trills.
If I were being hyper-critical, I could point to the hint of wayward tuning in the ‘Leg Slur’ patch’s F4 to F5 transition, which adds a slight, unnatural chorusing effect to the high note. More obvious are the same patch’s wrongly-pitched release samples on the low G, Ab and Bb notes. The fault (which also affects two ‘Leg Bow Change’ patches) occurs only the ‘Main’ miking. Oddly, it disappears when you push the mod wheel halfway up — gremlins at work?
As mentioned, the violin’s true legato samples have built-in vibrato, but you can program your own expressive vibrato surges with the ‘Sustain NV VB’ combo patches. In these, the mod wheel cross-fades between non-vibrato and vibrato looped sustains, while simultaneously controlling dynamics. If you prefer to separate the two functions, individual non-vibrato and vibrato patches are also available.
The ‘NV VB’ patches are available in polyphonic and monophonic (‘solo’) versions: the former can play chords, while the latter uses Play’s alternative, simulated legato mode to facilitate joined-up melody lines. Though generally sceptical of such techniques, I have to admit that it works rather well here: though less lifelike than the true legatos, it compensates by producing consistently smooth, evenly contoured melody lines. Add a little reverb, and your violin melodies will sing out in a shipshape fashion.
Other styles of note include the excellent, energetic ‘Grand Detaché’ and ‘Marcato Vib’, both commandingly cutting and incisive bowings which sound great on chordal stabs, creating the impression of a tight, forceful violin section. As you’d expect, pizzicatos and a brisk spiccato delivery are also provided, but the violin plays no tremolos.
Not to mince words, the tone of the Hollywood Solo Cello is absolutely exquisite. The instrument itself is probably worth more than the average UK house, and the miking skill of engineer Shawn Murphy extracts every last drop of timbral detail and resonance; the cello sounds so tangibly close, intimate and vibrant, you can almost smell the bow rosin. The range is unusually wide, spanning a full four octaves from the low string’s open C2 up to a high C6, well into violin territory. I particularly enjoyed the rich, vibrant, darkly lyrical sound of the low C2 to G3 register, but the higher range is also great for playing soaring, expressive melody lines.
The solo cello closely matches the violin’s articulation menu, turning in some intense ‘Grand Detaché’ deliveries which feature fabulously fruity and powerful bass notes. I sometimes feel classical musicians are a little restrained in their deliveries, but when a bit of musical muscle is required, this musician really attacks his or her instrument with rock & roll gusto. In a more delicate vein, the breathy, darker sound of the looped flautando sustains makes a nice pad timbre which can be enhanced by subtly layering the more open tone of the ‘Sustain Light Vibrato’ patch. Alternatively, you can do the old trick of layering the flautandos with the cello’s spiccato bowing in order to increase rhythmic definition.
Turning to the short notes, the cello’s marcatos, played in two different lengths, are a great resource for chordal stabs and accents. The longer marcato is louder, and sounds very effective when used to add occasional dramatic emphasis to the short version. For more intense, histrionic accents, I recommend the sforzando articulation, which combines an aggressive bow attack with a strong vibrato and subtle fp crescendo.
As with the solo violin, ‘Sustain NV VB’ patches provide combined mod-wheel control of vibrato intensity and instrument volume. Don’t overlook these no-vibrato samples: whether you’re scoring a BBC documentary about Eighth Century Northumbrian monks or composing a soundtrack for a new Mike Leigh film, you’ll almost certainly find a use for their stern, steely and admirably stringent delivery, played with no trace of emotionalism — the musical equivalent of a hair shirt. If the monks start rioting, or the Mike Leigh film unexpectedly veers off into a car chase, switch to the cello’s vigorous, highly rhythmic tremolos, played at a single loud dynamic and ready to rip the roof off (or blow the bloody doors off, as the case may be).
It took a while to attune my touch to the cello’s ‘Legato Slur’ patches: I found I achieved the best results by playing slowly with a minimum of note overlap, but the legato transitions coped less well with fast passages. That said, speed freaks can go to town with the cello’s fast playable runs patch, and those of a histrionic musical nature (ie. me) will enjoy using the ‘Leg Bow Change Fast’ patch to play manic fast arpeggios. No adjustment of touch was necessary when using the ‘Lyrical Vib Solo’ simulated legato articulation, which (as with the equivalent violin patch) does a surprisingly good job of outputting joined-up melody lines regardless of how fast, slow, loud or soft you play.
Though the sound and musical performances are wonderful, certain technical details are imperfect: the chorusing effect I noted in the solo violin legatos is audible on several intervals (for example, C#3 down to A2) in the cello’s ‘Legato Slur’ patch, prompting my partner (a cellist in her school years) to remark, “It sounds like two cellos.” While that only holds true for a fraction of a second, it’s enough to give the game away. Fortunately, the ‘Leg Sus Slur’ true legato patch (which uses the mod wheel to switch between mp and f dynamics) fares better in this regard, sounding satisfactory in all its note transitions.
EastWest’s Play sound engine can hold multiple patches, each of which can operate on its own dedicated MIDI channel if required. All the Hollywood Solo Instruments default to MIDI ‘omni’ mode when loaded, which means they play all parts regardless of the part’s MIDI channel. If you want to hear independent parts operating within one instance of Play, simply change each instrument’s MIDI receive setting from ‘omni’ to any of the 16 available MIDI channels.
The solo violin and cello perform no phrases, licks, runs, trills, harmonics or played portamento slides. You can add simulated portamento via a button on the GUI, with the portamento depth and on/off setting controlled by MIDI CC5 and CC65 respectively. Warning: you should only activate this effect for specific, isolated pitch-glide events, otherwise the whole part will sound out of tune! Both instruments have ‘KS’ combo patches containing up to eight keyswitchable articulations. Unlike some sample players, Play does not allow you to edit the keyswitch pitches, so you’re stuck with the C0-G0 and C0-F0 ranges used in these master patches.
The iLok licence system used for EastWest libraries no longer requires that you own an iLok key, but it does (as with most things in life) require Internet access. Before buying a library, you create an iLok account at www.ilok.com, then enter your iLok account name at the EastWest web site checkout page, and also in the ‘iLok.com User Name’ field in your EastWest ‘My Account’ page. After purchasing, you can download iLok’s free License Manager software, use it to sign in to your iLok account, view your licence, then drag and drop it onto your computer or iLok key, where it will sit alongside any other licences you happen to own.
That’s the theory anyway. However, when it came to activating this library, the freshly installed, brand-new version of the iLok License Manager software I had just downloaded refused to let me sign in, warning that the server was currently unavailable and there was no estimate for when it would become available again. Great. I’ll draw a veil over my ensuing failed attempts to rectify the problem, but suffice it to say that I had to resort to a using a two-year-old version of iLok License Manager on a different operating system merely in order to sign in and activate the library, which cost me precious work time. Meanwhile, the new version of the License Manager still refuses to work.
Is it just me, or is all this getting a bit too complicated? Internet forum posts indicate that many people continue to experience such issues, which seem almost inevitable when dealing with multiple, co-dependent software programs which continually demand to be updated. Much as I respect manufacturers’ need to protect themselves against Internet piracy, and with due respect to the copious advice and resources EastWest give to users experiencing such difficulties (which tells its own story), I can’t help feeling there must be a simpler, more convenient way of going about it. If not, I may have to consider the nuclear option of selling my computer and reverting to playing the banjo — then you’ll all be sorry.
If Frank Sinatra had survived into the 21st Century, revisited the studio where he famously recorded ‘Strangers In The Night’ and stuck his head round the door while an EastWest sampling session was in progress, he would have been surprised to hear a violinist playing the same note over and over again. (‘If the guy needs to practice, why doesn’t he do it at home?’) The singer might also have found it hard to believe that sample libraries of such single notes now change hands for hundreds of dollars, whereas you can pick up a ‘Best Of Frank Sinatra’ double CD on Amazon for 11 quid. Still, as the man they called Ol’ Blue Eyes might have said, that’s life.
While the main foundations have been in place since 2014, it took EastWest a further two years to develop their Hollywood Orchestra to the point where it can now be called reasonably complete. (No criticism intended — such large projects take time.) The recent introduction of harp, solo cello and solo violin is the icing on the cake, and will be welcomed by those who seek orchestral realism and detail. Even if you don’t own the whole library, you can buy these top-quality solo instruments safe in the knowledge that they’re totally compatible with the large ensembles in the other Hollywood collections, and as such they represent a good, durable investment for composers, musicians and producers looking to create authentic, large-scale, great-sounding orchestral arrangements.
Stand-alone concert harps (not to be confused with Celtic or folk harps) abound, with Cinesamples Cineharp, Project SAM Concert Harp, Vienna Symphonic Library’s Harps (featuring two instruments) and Spitfire Audio’s Skaila Kanga Harp vying for buyers’ attention. Affordable alternatives include Sonokinetic’s Arpeggio (reviewed in SOS in 2011) and Orange Tree’s Angelic (!) Harp, the latter offering the advantage of heavenly endorsement.
Current alternatives in the solo strings field include Spitfire Audio’s Sacconi Strings (separate violin and cello volumes), Embertone’s Friedlander Violin and Blakus Cello, Orchestral Tools Nocturne Violin and Nocturne Cello, Virharmonic Bohemian Violin, Chris Hein’s newly-released Solo Violin and Harmonic Subtones Emotional Cello. If you don’t mind shelling out for a fuller line-up, Spitfire’s Solo Strings — London Virtuoso Soloists and Strezov Sampling’s so-called Macabre Solo Strings both contain a violin, viola and cello, while VSL Solo Strings and Kirk Hunter Spotlight Solo Strings offer a full hand of violin, viola, cello and double bass.
- Main (Decca Tree)
- Surround / Vintage
Hollywood Solo Instruments
- Close Vintage
- Mid Vintage / Main (Decca Tree)
In both cases, the Play sound engine’s fourth microphone channel is switchable between two sample sets. The only way to hear both in action at the same time is to open a second instance of Play!
As in Hollywood Orchestra, the ‘Close’ position is directly in front of the instrument, ‘Mid’ is a central position a few feet away at the edge of the stage and ‘Main’ is a central miking approximating to the fifth row of a concert hall, using the traditional Decca Tree trio of spaced microphones. The new ‘Close Vintage’ and ‘Mid Vintage’ options feature alternative, warmer-sounding vintage microphones placed just off to the side of the instrument.
The Diamond Edition of Hollywood Solo Instruments includes all five microphone positions (see ‘Buying Options’). Its harp patches load with the ‘Close Vintage’ and ‘Mid’ microphones enabled: though that sounds perfectly agreeable and will sit well within a full orchestral mix, I found the open, transparent combination of ‘Close’ and ‘Main’ (the default microphone set-up in the Solo Violin Diamond Edition) more to my taste. The Solo Cello Diamond patches load with just the Main miking in place, keeping the focus on the instrument’s sumptuous tonal detail. A built-in convolution reverb is also activated in many of the solo instrument patches, adding a welcome dash of hall sound.
Hollywood Solo Instruments are available in Diamond and Gold editions (see details below). The list of articulations for the two editions is the same, and both are available by download or on hard drive. Those with a Gold Edition license can upgrade to the Diamond Edition via EastWest’s web site.
Diamond Edition: 24-bit samples, Five mic positions.
Gold Edition: 16-bit samples, One microphone position*
(* The Gold Edition single microphone position differs depending on the library: Hollywood Harp Gold Edition offers the ‘Mid Vintage’ position, while the solo strings’ Gold Editions use the ‘Close’ miking.)
Buyers wishing to purchase the instruments outright have a choice of two bundles: Harp, Solo Cello & Solo Violin, or Solo Cello & Solo Violin. The Diamond instrument sizes are 15.3GB (harp), 40.7GB (cello) and 39GB (violin), while the Gold versions are 2.1GB, 8.2GB and 5.2GB respectively.
EastWest’s ComposerCloud subscription-based service offers downloads of the individual solo instruments’ Gold Editions on a monthly basis, while the Diamond Editions are only available to subscribers of the more expensive ComposerCloud Plus yearly plan. Once downloaded, libraries remain activated for the duration of the subscription, which can be paused if required. For more details visit www.soundsonline-europe.com/composercloud.
The much-vaunted ‘round-robin’ sampling technique avoids obvious sample repetition (aka the so-called ‘machine gun effect’) by cycling through a set of alternative samples when notes are repeated. Often the alternative samples sound so similar that it’s hard to tell them apart, but their collective effect is more organic and convincing than hearing the mechanical repetition of a single sample.
One potential problem with round robins is that they can cause arrangements to never sound the same way twice. Here’s how it works: let’s say a note with two built-in round robins is repeated three times. On the first play, the note cycles through RR1, RR2 and RR1, but when you play the piece again it starts on RR2, because that’s the next sample in the round-robin cycle. In some cases (for example, when the RR2 sample is trimmed differently from RR1, or if the samples aren’t bang in tune), this can create subtle rhythmic or tuning disturbances.
In order to put users back in charge of how their arrangements sound, some companies (EastWest among them) provide a ‘round-robin reset’ function. Pressing a button on the user interface resets the instrument’s round-robin sequence so it always starts on RR1. This can be automated by assigning a MIDI note outside the playable range of the instrument to the reset button, then inserting that MIDI note at the top of your arrangement. It’s good practice to also insert the note immediately before each main section in your piece, as that allows you to start playback from any point safe in the knowledge that the incoming music will sound the same as it did last time!
- A lovely concert harp, beautifully played and recorded.
- The solo violin sounds great and is highly playable.
- The tone of the solo cello is absolutely exquisite.
- All instruments are compatible with the larger Hollywood Orchestra collections.
- The harp glissandi are played in only a handful of keys.
- The solo strings play no trills or portamentos.
- The solo cello’s ‘Legato Slur’ patch needs some work.
EastWest’s trio of solo instruments adds instrumental detail and colour to the company’s Hollywood Orchestra. Beautifully played and recorded from multiple mic positions in the same studio as the large Hollywood collections, these highly playable instruments are 100 percent compatible with the existing titles and uphold the high quality of this first-class orchestral library.