Take your front‑row seat, sit back and enjoy the show — Hollywood Strings is here.
When it comes to keeping an audience interested, Los Angeles‑based sound company EastWest have the instincts of a showman. Their latest release was originally announced over a year ago, raising expectations sky high and setting Internet forums ablaze with gossip. For months on end, visitors to the company's web site were confronted with a set of red theatre drapes concealing the object of desire, so it was a dramatic moment when show time finally arrived and the curtains drew back to reveal the new star turn: Hollywood Strings, the world's largest self‑contained string library, 13 months in the making and boasting around 800,000 samples.
A recurring question has been "what kind of system do I need to run this library?” One strong recommendation from EastWest is that users seeking optimum performance should use Solid State Drives (SSDs) to house the samples. While these devices have much faster access speeds than regular hard drives, they are considerably more expensive. Happily for those hit by the current economic doom‑fest, the library runs without problems on conventional fast drives, though some of its bigger patches do demand a pretty hefty system. (See below for EastWest's specifications.)
Contrary to rumour, installing gigantic orchestral libraries from 35 DVDs is not the thing I enjoy most in life, so it was a relief to discover that HS ships pre‑installed on a hard drive. However, I was surprised to find that the drive in question is a bare internal type, which means that you either have to put it in a spare drive slot inside your computer or buy a suitable external case for it. At the time of writing, EastWest's web site states that the drive is supplied for installation purposes only and is "not intended for daily use (such as for storing the samples for streaming)”, a caveat repeated on the product box. The company have now upgraded the drive to a 500GB Western Digital Caviar Black 7200RPM SATA model which they say is suitable for sample streaming, and they advise that this warning message is now out of date.
The library was created by a quartet of Hollywood heavy hitters. EastWest supremo Doug Rogers and Nick Phoenix of Quantum Leap need no introduction — having enjoyed a professional partnership since 1997, it's safe to assume they know each other's names by now. For this project, the pair enlisted talented Norwegian composer/orchestrator Thomas Bergersen. Like Phoenix, Bergersen is an experienced film-trailer music producer, and having created a number of orchestral sound libraries for his own use (no, they're not commercially available), he shares EWQL's sampling and programming pedigree.
The fourth team member has a CV as long as your arm, and a display case full of Academy, BAFTA and Emmy awards: enter Shawn Murphy, the veteran sound engineer who has recorded and/or mixed the soundtracks of over 300 feature films during the last 30 years. In the words of Doug Rogers, "Who better to obtain that quintessential Hollywood sound than someone with his credits?” An excited forum user put it more emphatically: "DUDES!!! Shawn F‑ing MURPHY recorded it!!! It IS gonna be sick.”
Since early 2008, all EastWest/Quantum Leap releases have been formatted exclusively for their proprietary Play sound engine. Play comes in 64‑bit and 32‑bit flavours, both of which are included with the library. The chief advantage of the 64‑bit version is its ability to access much larger amounts of RAM, but in order to run it, your operating system, computer motherboard and (if you intend to use Play as a plug‑in) host sequencer also have to be 64‑bit. RAM usage apart, there's no difference in quality or functionality between the 32‑bit and 64‑bit versions of Play. (Full 64‑bit support for Mac is not currently available — see note in the 'System Requirements' box.) The Play sound engine was reviewed along with EastWest's Fab Four and Ministry of Rock libraries in SOS March 2008. Read the article at /sos/mar08/articles/ewfabfourministryofrock.htm).
In the interests of musical expression, Hollywood Strings uses an unprecedented amount of sample crossfading, causing a hike in polyphony that required some improvements to Play's software. Play version 2.0 (not to be confused with the forthcoming Play Pro) is now available as a free download to registered users. The makers claim the update also improves loading times, and while I was unable to compare Play v1 and v2 on the same machine, I can say that on a 3.16GHz PC the player took 25 seconds to load a 738MB instrument containing 7060 samples.
So what's not in HS? Since its selling point is a large‑scale, big‑budget cinematic sound, it doesn't contain solo instruments or chamber sections. No chords, phrases, 'wild card' effects or glissandi are included either, but you can simulate the latter by playing a rapid chromatic run using a 'repetition runs script' instrument. Though it's probably not an issue for media composers, there are no real-life muted (con sordino) samples; the effect of the mute is simulated by a switch that activates an EQ curve modelled on sordino recordings.
Enough of the prologue: it's time for the main feature. Hollywood Strings was recorded in EastWest's Studio 1 with 57 of LA's top string players, using full‑blown symphony orchestra section sizes (16/14/10/10/7). In marked contrast to EWQL Symphonic Orchestra (recorded in a reverberant concert hall), HS has a large‑room studio acoustic which, while by no means dry, lends itself to users adding their own reverb if desired. To that end, the library includes a large menu of convolution reverb impulse responses, including some derived from the hall in which EWQLSO was recorded.
From the violins down to the basses, these string sections have a lovely sound, texture and feel, with a rich, full symphonic sound and an opulent quality that comes from combining great players with a great sound engineer. The looped sustains are manna from heaven for pad merchants like myself, incorporating three degrees of vibrato as well as alternating up‑ and down‑bows. As one who likes to compose by playing, the provision of pre‑programmed, full, six‑octave strings sections is very helpful. You can use Play's instrument key-range setting to build your own full strings setups, though you'll find that the presets require fewer samples.
Meeting film composers' insatiable need for driving eighth‑note ostinatos, HS offers a generous selection of short note deliveries ranging in length from powerful short marcatos to brisk, urgent staccatissimos that will do nicely for high‑octane action scenes. I liked the intensity and forceful attack of the 'on‑the‑bow' staccato articulations (whose notes terminate with the bow still resting on the string) and the zing and bounce of the spiccato samples — great, energetic performances. Some of these deliveries incorporate as many as 16 round robins; a reset button allows you to force the round-robin cycle back to the top, and if necessary you can also add silent (zero velocity) notes before a part starts, to line up the requisite RR sample.
Following orchestral sample library best practice, the producers recorded completely different first and second violin sections. This greatly increases the timbral variety — and arguably, value for money — as each violinist brings in his or her own unique, often priceless instrument! The 14‑piece second violin section replicate many of the articulations played by the 16 first violins, and also perform some lovely breathy flautandos (a delicate, whispering delivery full of quiet tension) and a nice set of chromatically‑mapped harmonics.
Another articulation worthy of note is the 'measured tremolos' played by all sections, which time‑stretch to play their fast iterations at a user‑defined rate. The rhythmic effect is somewhat blurred, but a 16th‑note pulse can be discerned. The same idea is applied to the note repetitions played by the violas and basses. With these, the pulse is sharp and clear, though its real life speed is consistently a little slower than the tempo figure displayed by Play.
To facilitate expression, HS adopts a 'double modulation' technique on some instruments, in which MIDI expression (CC11) replaces velocity as the dynamics controller, while the vibrato depth is controlled by the mod wheel (CC1), an approach I first encountered in Garritan's Stradivari. It creates very lifelike, user‑controllable swells and fades and obviates the need for played crescendo and diminuendo samples: rather than fiddling around trying to make fixed‑length crescendo samples fit the tempo of your arrangement, you can create perfectly‑timed crescendi of your own. Starting notes with no vibrato, then gradually introducing it with the wheel is also very expressive. It takes a while to develop the requisite foot/hand co‑ordination, but with practice the combined modulation produces those dramatic, emotive surges in volume and vibrato intensity we associate with strings.
The technique works by crossfading between different layers of samples, with a choice of six, nine or 13 layers available for the vibrato sustains. Transitions between layers sound natural and ultra‑smooth, but a disadvantage is that even though you're only hearing two layers at any one time, the others are playing silently and consuming polyphony. For this reason, EastWest put the 13‑layer instruments in 'Powerful System' folders, warning that they may be too taxing on hardware that falls below the recommended specs. (Due to the crossfading involved, some of the large patches in HS use over 13,000 samples and require more than 1GB of RAM. For the those with less powerful systems EastWest created 'light' programs, available in the free HS instrument update 1.0.1.) I find this slightly perplexing — there's probably some technical reason why silent voices use up polyphony in Play, but it was never an issue on my old Akai S1000 hardware sampler!
I found the 'mod speed' instruments (which let you use the wheel to increase the speed of delivery from very short staccatissimo to a short marcato) a very useful programming aid. Keyswitches are used throughout to switch between semitone and tone trills, up and down runs, and so on. In addition, each section has a single main keyswitch instrument incorporating various types of sustained note articulations. At this time it's not possible to create your own custom keyswitches in Play.
A realistic legato sound — a smooth, unbroken, joined‑up line of notes, the hallmark of orchestral strings — is not easy to achieve with samples. In HS, EastWest bit the bullet and, following the example of Vienna Symphonic Library and others, painstakingly recorded legato intervals of one to 12 semitones, up and down, for every note in the instrument's range. This generates enormous amounts of sample data and helps explain why libraries of this ilk are so big, and why they take so long to create! I found the results to be excellent: with a little convolution reverb added, the cellos' legato performances sounded truly magnificent.
HS offers three types of legato: 'slur legato' (regular joined‑up notes), 'portamento' (Bollywood‑style slides), and 'bow change', where you can hear the players elongate notes by changing bow direction. The legatos incorporate different dynamics and vibrato strengths (controlled by CC11 and CC1 respectively), so you have the great advantage of adding real‑sounding, expressive surges and diminuendos to legato melody lines. Velocity is used to control the speed of the intervals, including that of the portamento slides: playing hard triggers a quick note transition, while the 51‑60 velocity range works best for slow‑moving performances. The fastest legato intervals speak quickly, but they're not up to producing a realistic trill effect. If you need one of those, use the played trills samples.
Though these legato instruments are basically monophonic, a MIDI CC22 command will render them polyphonic and non‑legato, thus avoiding the hassle of having to switch to a different articulation to play chords within a legato passage. The makers also created monophonic legato and portamento simulations that can be turned on and off on the front panel. The legato effect works well across the board, and the portamento sounds pretty good if used judiciously. Unfortunately, neither the scripted nor the real legatos accommodate the old monophonic analogue synth technique of holding down one note while rapidly reiterating another, a nice easy way of playing a trill!
Speaking of ease of playing, even one‑fingered keyboardists will be able to impress their relatives with the fast up and down octave runs performed in various scales by the first violins, violas and cellos. Though the samples do their job well, I noticed that the time‑stretching used on these instruments introduced some extraneous audio artifacts. (Other programming bugs in the review copy caused staccato on‑bow and staccato slur samples to cut off abruptly at the end and a general malfunction in the basses' slow legato instruments. These have now all been remedied and the fixes will be available in a free Play update.) Multi‑digit performers will enjoy whipping out very fast, Flight Of The Bumblebee‑style lines on the 'playable runs' scripted instruments, the only limitation being that on the slur and spiccato runs, the note‑smoothing effect works only on semitone and tone intervals.
Hollywood Strings addresses the problem of 'divisi' in an idiosyncratic manner. Real‑life string sections often divide to play different parts or the individual notes of a chord. For example, in a 14‑violin section, eight violins might play the top part while the remaining six take the lower part, or the instruments might divide 6:4:4 to play a three-note chord. Old-school string libraries can't replicate this effect, as samples are usually played by all the players in a section.
The producers' solution was to place microphones close to the left and right side of each section, capturing a pair of mono mixes labelled 'Divisi A' and 'Divisi B'. Every patch in the library has a corresponding A and B 'divisi' option, available only in the close‑miked position. These mono patches have a smaller sound than the other mikings and can thus be used to simulate an orchestral divisi. One advantage is that as they are the same performances (albeit miked differently), there are no tuning, timing or phase discrepancies with the main stereo samples!
Connoisseurs of the violin family will know that pitches played high up near the bridge have a warm sound, while notes played low down on the neck sound more bright and open. In HS, the choice of string may be determined by a knob whose four positions (selectable manually or via keyswitches) correspond to the instruments' strings: for example, selecting 'Position 2' on a violas patch gives you the notes played on the second (G) string. If you choose a pitch that the currently selected string can't reach, Play will explode, creating a giant fireball that burns down your house. Actually, I'm lying: what really happens is that the software automatically moves the note over to the next closest string. Finger-position control is implemented on bowed long notes (not legatos) for all sections except the basses; there are also '4th position' instruments in which all notes are played high on the neck, for a warm, romantic timbre.
There's no doubt that the fabulous sound, musical versatility and depth of expression of HS place it in the highest echelon of professional string libraries. No-one in their right mind would criticise the effort that went into creating it, but at times I felt a little less effort might have been beneficial — for example, I occasionally found myself hankering after some simpler, less multi‑dimensional patches (for example, straight velocity-controlled vibrato sustains). For maximum flexibility of programming, having access to the individual layers used in the instruments would be very handy. Which I guess is where Play Pro comes in...
Returning to the question of what system this library needs, it's clear that the producers' laudable endeavours to make it as musically and sonically powerful as possible have created a technically demanding product. Users should make sure their systems can cope before buying; it's not realistic to expect to simultaneously run large numbers of HS's 'powerful system' instruments on an average‑to‑middling setup, especially if you want to use multiple mic positions. Determining exactly how many instruments you can run at any one time depends on how much RAM your system can access (itself something of a vexed issue), which instruments you need (they range in size from 3MB to well over 1GB), and how much polyphony they consume. In a nutshell, unless you have the kind of optimal system outlined above, expect to do more bouncing than you would with your average library.
If you've already bought this high‑end, musically intricate collection, you'd be daft not to read its excellent manual (downloadable from www.soundsonline.com/static/downloads/docs/Hollywood‑Strings‑Manual.pdf), which explains its hidden depths with admirable clarity. If you haven't yet taken the plunge, check out the 'Techniques' audio demos on EastWest's site. These feature the strings playing on their own, enabling you to properly experience their sound. Absolute beginners, abject paupers, technophobes and people in whom the sound of lush orchestral strings induces psychotic episodes need not apply, but if you're serious about orchestral sampling, you won't want to let this impressive strings library pass you by.
Only a handful of libraries come close to matching the symphonic scale (if not the sample data size) of Hollywood Strings. Vienna Symphonic Library's 18GB Appassionata Strings I boasts larger sections and a second volume featuring real sordinos; and LA Scoring Strings (40GB) offers flexible section sizes for divisi writing, as well as solo strings, but neither library has a separate second violins section. Kirk Hunter's Concert Strings II (size not published) is a worthy contender, providing symphonic, studio, chamber and solo strings, while the Anglo‑Australian entry Cinematic Strings (22GB) features 40 players (including second violins) making a lush and powerful sound. Of these collections, only Hollywood Strings and Cinematic Strings have multiple mic positions.
- Sixteen first violins, 14 second violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 7 basses. (Total 57 players.)
ARTICULATIONS: LONG NOTES
- Sustained vibrato (up & down bows) .
- Sustained non‑vibrato (as above) .
- Sustained molto vibrato (as above) *.
- Detaché (up & down bows) .
- Marcato sustain .
ARTICULATIONS: SHORT NOTES
- Marcato short (t/l) .
- Staccato (t/l) .
- On‑the‑bow staccato (t/l) .
- Staccato slur  (violins only).
- Staccatissimo (t/l) .
- Spiccato (t/l) .
- Pizzicato (t/l) .
- 'Bartok' pizzicato (t/l).
- Ricochet (jeté) (t/l) .
- Col legno (t/l).
EFFECTS & RUNS
- Measured tremolo .
- Tremolo .
- Sul ponticello tremolo (violas only).
- Trill (semitone/tone*) .
- Fast repetitions .
- Runs (chromatic, major, minor, whole tone)*.
- Spiccato runs (violins only).
- Slur runs (violins only).
- Legato slur (normal/slow) .
- Legato bow change* (normal/slow) .
- Portamento legato* (normal/fast) .
[x] Number of dynamic layers.
* Not basses.
** Second violins only.
t/l = tight (trimmed) attack/loose (untrimmed) attack.
Some articulations are not played by all five sections; many of the library's patches feature combinations of the performance styles listed above.
In 2003, EWQL Symphonic Orchestra raised the bar for orchestral libraries by simultaneously miking its players from three different positions (close, stage and back of hall), a godsend for those working in surround. HS ups the ante by offering five alternative mikings plus two further 'divisi' options (explained elsewhere). The mic positions are 'close' (directly in front of the players), 'mid' (dead centre at the front edge of the stage), 'main' (a central miking approximating to the fifth row of a concert hall, using the traditional 'Decca tree' trio of spaced microphones) and 'surround' (high up, towards the back of the room). A switch enables you to toggle between the regular surround microphones and vintage ribbon mics (as used in classic Hollywood movies) in the same positions.
The close mics have a nice wide stereo image, contain the most detail and made me feel as though I was sitting in the middle of the players, while the 'main' miking (my favourite) sounds fuller and introduces a natural room ambience. Though the surround mics sound more distant, the difference between them and the main miking is actually fairly subtle. The 'mid' miking sounds somewhat more disembodied, bright and transparent, and the 'vintage' ribbon mic setting sounds like a more mellow, less hi‑fi version of the other surround samples — pleasant enough, but not a must‑have. This abundance of mic positions gives plenty of options for 5.1 and 7.1 surround mixing, and will also have useful applications in other multi‑speaker installations.
Hollywood Strings runs stand‑alone and as a plug‑in on Mac (Intel machines only, OS 10.5 or later) and PC (Windows XP SP2, Vista or Windows 7). The samples are 24‑bit and require 312GB of disk space. Supported audio drivers are (Windows) ASIO, DirectSound, VST and (Mac) Audio Units, Core Audio and VST. For a full list of supported hosts, go to www.soundsonline‑europe.com/hollywood‑strings and click on 'Specifications'.
The library's system requirements are:
- Minimum System: 4GB RAM, 7200RPM non‑energy‑saving* hard drive.
Mac: Intel Core 2 Duo Processor 2.1GHz or higher.
PC: Intel Core 2 Duo or AMD Dual Core 2.1GHz or higher.
- Recommended System: 8GB RAM or more, 7200RPM non‑energy‑saving* hard drive.
Mac: Mac Pro Quad‑Core Intel Xeon 2.66GHz or higher.
PC: Intel Core 2 Quad or AMD Quad‑Core 2.66GHz or higher, 64‑bit Windows/host sequencer.
- Optimal System: 16GB RAM or more, Solid State drive (SSD).
Mac: Mac Pro Eight‑Core Intel Xeon 2.26GHz or higher.
PC: Intel Core i7 2.66GHz or higher, 64‑bit Windows/host sequencer.
(* See the Play 2 Frequently Asked Questions document at www.soundsonline.com/updates.php for information on energy‑saving drives.)
EastWest advise that when running HS/Play in a sequencer host, best performance will be obtained by running multiple instances of Play rather than using a single instance multitimbrally This is apparently due to the way the sequencer controls core distribution on your computer.
As with all Play‑formatted titles, an iLok security key (not supplied, cost around $40) is necessary to run the library. The on‑line serial‑number authorisation deposits a license on the iLok and the key may be transferred between computers, enabling HS to be used on different machines (though not at the same time). Customers may buy one additional license at half price, provided the original license is on the same iLok account and both computers are connected to the same network.
The current lack of full 64‑bit support for Mac is due to PACE (who are independent of EastWest) not yet issuing 64‑bit Mac drivers for their iLok. EastWest say this is expected in the third quarter of 2010, and in the meantime they're working on an interim solution. A partial workaround available now for Mac users is the Play Memory Server (integrated in Play's Mac 64‑bit installation software), which runs in the background and permits up to 10GB of RAM to be shared between Play and the sequencer host, while allowing extra RAM to be used by the system and other software.
A budget Gold Edition is still planned but no details are available. At present there is only one, full version of the library.