In today’s digital age, it’s possible for anyone to acquire the equipment and technology for a home studio.
Bringing music to life through the use of VST instruments has become a reality within your very own computer. As a composer and musician, the option to work on music through a DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation, has become very appealing.
It is important to adapt to this technology as many directors, developers and other clients expect a good quality audio recording for a demo of your composition. Projects may not cover the expansive budget costs of a live orchestra, so you may have to rely on your best-sounding VSTs when crafting the final product.
Certain VSTis help make your piece sound as close as possible to a real live ensemble. A popular library for many musicians are orchestral strings libraries.
Of course, it would be nice to record or overdub strings in all your compositions, but this is sometimes impossible due to financial costs and studio time.
Luckily there are a variety of excellent orchestral strings VST plugins to choose from, without having to leave your home studio.
Quick Recap on VST Plugins
Before diving into the best strings VSTs themselves, let’s do a quick recap on what VSTs are, why you should use them, and what things to consider before pulling the trigger on any particular library.
Using VST Strings VS Real Instruments?
- Access to a variety of different strings libraries, which can be combined to create lush, large orchestras.
- Not needing recording equipment or expensive instruments readily available when you can use a sample instead.
- Avoiding upkeep that comes with a string instrument (tuning, re-stringing, keeping your instrument in a cool, dry area without humidity, having various bows and mutes available to the playing style, etc)
- The ability to add string sections that may complement your song (no matter the genre) without being able to play a string instrument — and without hiring someone that does.
- Sample libraries, particularly orchestral strings, can get pretty expensive!
- Many sample libraries sound good these days, but there are still no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions. While the libraries listed are high quality in sound, there is no perfect library and while someone may feel strongly about a certain library, someone else may prefer another. This means you have to spend a fair bit of time researching and downloading demos.
How Do I Choose the Best Strings VST Plugin?
Most orchestral strings VSTs are of excellent quality and each library I find tends to get approved by a lot of my clients. Many of them prefer high-quality sounding pieces over music that may be well-written but used with poor samples.
Some libraries are similar in sound yet have their own individual perks. With research, every composer is capable of choosing an appropriate strings library that will enhance their compositions depending on their creative requirements. I have met colleagues who prefer certain libraries over others and vice versa.
Out of the list compiled below, any one of these libraries contain fantastic samples that could be well-utilized in your next piece.
Hopefully the guide will make your decision a little easier and remember you don’t have to be limited to just one VST – strings really shine when used in combination with another string library… just watch out for your wallet!
The Best Orchestral Strings VSTs
Orchestral Tools Berlin Strings
Orchestral Tools Berlin Strings is a string library held in high regard by its users. This library is one of the industry standards when it comes to orchestral strings and is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
The library hosts a collection of lush and agile string instruments which faithfully recreate MIDI mockups comparable to a live recording.
The samples were recorded at the Teldex Scoring Stage in Berlin, where the Berlin, Vienna and New York Philharmonic Orchestras have recorded in, as well as many pop artists including Celine Dion, Alicia Keys and Britney Spears.
Berlin Strings’ key features include:
- bow stroke control ranging from soft, immediate and accented attack,
- a broad collection of short notes ranging from pizzicato, spiccato, and staccato,
- playable runs and pre-recorded octave runs that sync to your tempo,
- smaller ensembles for definition and detail,
- ostinato (a repeated phrase) arpeggio legato where a faster legato can contain up to 6 round robins and a slower legato contains up to 3,
- 4 adjustable microphone positions as well as a concert master (first violinist) individual microphone
One feature where Berlin Strings really shines is their “First True Adaptive Legato”. In order to achieve a level of realism in the samples, the team at Orchestral Tools had string musicians record every interval up to an octave, meaning you hear the true legato of the instrument between any two notes.
Each legato patch is programmed with a crossfade layer which adjusts the transitions accordingly to sound natural. The Adaptive Legato reacts to your playing and will pick up which legato style to use automatically. You can force a particular legato such as a slurred or agile type by clicking on the “S” button for “Solo”.
There are numerous legato expressions in Berlin Strings that are triggered by the keyboard velocity. Legato patches create soft attacks at low velocity and accented sustains at high velocity; portamento slides are activated at high velocities. It is worth noting that legato is a very important articulation in string playing. It causes strings to sound lush and full in an orchestral piece.
The expression is most difficult to get right (as opposed to recording shorter articulations like staccato or pizzicato) which is why the various legato expressions in Berlin Strings is a powerful tool for getting your virtual compositions to sound natural.
Berlin Strings also commands high-quality short articulations. Each of the articulations recorded have a very broad dynamic range, from soft to expressive fortissimo. Some articulations in the library include sustains, double stops, trills, and many more useful articulations.
Berlin Strings also includes pre-recorded scale runs within the range of one octave. The scale’s key is defined by which red note keystroke is selected on the piano in the UI.
Something that Berlin Strings does a little differently than others is their trills orchestrator. To define if you want a whole or half trill, you simply play the two notes together and the sample will play these notes as a trill. For example, if I hold down C on my keyboard and D right above, it will automatically play the whole step trill. If C and Db are played, the sample will play a half trill.
The velocity at which you play a note allows you to trigger certain bow strokes such as soft attack, immediate attack or accented attack.
You can use a CC (Control Change or Continuous Controller) of your choice to activate different vibrato expressions: without, romantic (for a subtle vibrato) or strong (for a wider vibrato). The sustain CC can also be used to insert a gentle fall off on a phrase.
Orchestral Tools has meticulously studied and implemented the idiomatic orchestration behind string instruments. They have programmed blurred articulations similar to when a string section plays a fast passage so that the intonation seems meshed rather than perfectly defined.
Berlin Strings by Orchestral Tools is a high-quality, industry-standard strings library backed by many composers and musicians including the likes of David Newman, Junkie XL, Harry Gregson-Williams, Jeff Russo and Richard Harvey.
It is one of the more expensive options but a name most composers and musicians know and talk highly of. The sound is impeccable and very realistic. The library is an investment for any serious musician and can be purchased through the Orchestral Tools website.
Orchestral Tools Berlin Symphonic Strings
Orchestral Tools have just released a new strings library: Berlin Symphonic Strings. The library focuses on large string sections capturing cinematic, rich string compositions that maintain the renowned characteristics of the Berlin series.
This is quite a large ensemble setup. For reference, typical string section instrumentation in the LA film industry involves 24 violins, 8 violas, 8 celli and 4 basses.
Berlin Symphonic Strings instruments play in a broad range of articulations including various legato specialties, tremolos, trills and shorter articulations including staccato, pizzicato and marcato.
The strings were recorded at the Teldex Scoring Stage in Berlin and are sampled in situ, with players in the traditional strings seating arrangement with violins on the left, violas in the center and celli and basses on the right. This seating arrangement helps create a natural, homogenous blend.
The mic positions are worthy of mention here as you can create specific positioning across the ensemble. Due to the number of microphone positions, such as two different spot mics, ambience, and tree mics, it is easy to experiment with the stereo soundscape.
A close mic positioning may have a completely different effect on a wider mic position even on the same composition. This is definitely a tool worth playing around with and experimenting on your string arrangements.
The library features three legato modes: Melodic Legato, Pattern Legato, and Rapid Legato.
Melodic Legato focuses on true legato between each interval with natural vibrato to achieve a lifelike sound. This mode shines when used in slow phrases and thematic passages.
Pattern Legato is suited for ostinato passages where round robin is utilized to eliminate the machine-gun robotic effect. The mode applies three samples for each transition which varies the sound of repeated notes and aims for a more natural sound.
You can manually enable the randomization of the round robin via the “RR” tab to the bottom right of the UI.
Rapid Legato focuses on fast runs and phrases.
Berlin Symphonic Strings also features the Adaptive Legato feature from Berlin Strings, where the type of legato will adapt to what you are playing. If it is a slow passage, it will lean towards the melodic legato whereas when you are inputting a fast passage, the sample will program rapid legato. This makes creating ostinato passages with various rhythms a breeze.
There is a slider on the left panel of the UI where you can adjust the vibrato intensity from more expressive to more subtle. This can be adjusted by using the modulation wheel on your MIDI controller as you play.
There’s also the option for a soft sustain, which is incredibly handy as many string chords have a natural ramp up. The bow stroke is an important part of strings writing and it is a good idea to incorporate a soft, regular, or accented sustain to your longer passages and chords as well.
Orchestral Tools also produced a useful walk-through tutorial of how to navigate Berlin Symphonic Strings within the Sine Engine:
Orchestral Tools maintains their high standard with next new title in their Berlin Series. The sound of the samples is of great quality and is perfect for those looking for a large string ensemble that’s easy to use within the Sine Engine. It’s also a more affordable alternative to the original Berlin Strings.
If you already own Berlin Strings, you can crossgrade to own Berlin Symphonic Strings for €399.
EastWest Hollywood Strings (Diamond Edition)
EastWest’s Hollywood Strings is an extensive string library which achieves a high quality in sound and gives the user complete control. This program allows the composer to adjust string nuances including finger positioning, dynamics, vibrato, true legato and bow changes.
Hollywood Strings is co-produced by Thomas Bergerson, known for his cinematic music from Two Steps from Hell, and engineered by Sean Murphy, known for his recording and mixing of the Star Wars franchise among many other large scale projects.
The library’s recording took place at EastWest Studio One in Los Angeles where artists such as Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones recorded and produced many of their songs. The idea behind this library is to capture the true sound of Hollywood movies — reminiscent of the lush themes of Hollywood’s Golden Age to the present.
This library was intentionally created with abundance and extreme detail: EastWest created as many velocities and performance capabilities as possible.
The other available folders are not only categorized by individual instrument and section but also more specifically such as “1st Violins > Short Tight > Stac On Bow with 9 Round Robins”.
There are also Divisi folders where string instruments typically share a stand (two players on one stand) which achieves a different sound than one player per stand creating a separation and clarity between the left and right player.
It is a good idea to peruse the VSTi’s manual to get familiar with the abbreviations of the sample names. For example, NV means no vibrato, while VB means vibrato.
As you can see, there are a plethora of string articulations and expressions to choose from and you will be able to find almost any traditional technique to use in your string arrangements.
Long expressions include legato slurred and with bow changes, portamento, detache and sustains; and short articulations include pizzicato, col legno, bartok pizz, marcato, ricochet, spiccato, staccato, staccatissimo.
Playstyle effects include tremolos, trills and playable and pre-recorded runs. These expressions can be found in each individual string sample instrument.
Looking at the Player’s main menu, there will be a few notes on the keyboard colored blue. This shows the notes that can be used as keyswitches — if available to your loaded instrument.
Along the side panels are settings such as system settings, performance settings, envelope, a basic mixer with mic positions, stereo image adjustments, reverb and a master output.
The performance settings in the left panel is a nifty tool where you can easily and quickly change the expression you want by clicking one of the options, even if it wasn’t recorded into the sample you picked.
For example, if you loaded a violin sustain patch and select the portamento option in the performance settings, the script will force portamento into the patch and will play back a portamento line.
In the center display there is an articulations window which lists each articulation in use of the loaded patch and contains information such as its keyswitch note, whether or not it is activated (uncheck to save on CPU resources if not in use) and the knob,which adjusts the loudness of the selected articulation while not affecting any of the others.
You are able to change the keyswitch notes in the menu by right clicking on the name of the articulation patch under the “type” column.
Because there are so many different expressions within the Hollywood Strings library, it may be helpful (especially those unfamiliar with writing or playing string instruments) to view this video explaining different bow strokes:
It is also a good idea to check out the manual which has a more in-depth explanation of many orchestral techniques including finger positions on each instrument and definitions for many of the expressions available including col legno and Bartok pizz.
Overall, EastWest Hollywood Strings is an enormous library full of everything you could possibly need in a traditional orchestral strings setup. The powerful scripts that implement many techniques and finger positions are what makes Hollywood Strings an industry-standard choice for composers.
The UI is a little more complex to use than some others listed but it is worth acquiring if you can decipher it. For those looking to incorporate the true sound of Hollywood, this library is a great pick.
Audiobro LA Scoring Strings (Full 2.5)
Audiobro presents LA Scoring Strings, otherwise known as LASS. The library — recorded in Los Angeles and created by film composer, Andrew Keresztes — provides a high level of realism and expressiveness with their strings.
The available instrumentation includes 16 violins, 12 violas, 10 celli and 8 basses. The first and second violins have been separated by a virtual second violin section which has been programmed to avoid phasing with the first violins.
LASS is well-known for its flexible string sections from tutti to divisi. This is different to other libraries where if there are 16 particular violins playing one note and 16 different violins also playing another note, this would unrealistically create a sound of 32 violins.
To combat this LASS will create divisi where 8 violins play the first note and the remaining 8 stand partners will play the second note to interpret a real-world studio setting.
LASS is a little complex in design as there are many intricacies woven into the library, such as:
- String section separation from divisi to tutti
- First-chair player controls which add depth and realism to your string section
- String color presets that mimic a particular film’s sound
- Stage & color feature where you can adjust the stage positioning, tone, reverb and delay of the samples
- The A.R.T (Auto Rhythm Tool) engine allowing you to hold down any CC (default is the sustain pedal) in order to easily switch to a short articulation like spiccato, staccato, or pizzicato
- A.R.C (Audiobro Remote Control) which manipulates loaded samples with various settings including stage & color, the sordino-izer, easier control of sections and divisi, reverb, key switching, micro-tuning, and many more features
As noted in other string libraries, LASS also achieves a realistic legato sound. If you hold down one note while moving to another, LASS automatically adds a portamento or gliss, depending on the velocity at which you pressed the second note. You can adjust the speed of the transition using CC 83 for further customization.
Using shorter articulations such as staccato and pizzicato can be achieved using the A.R.T engine. While holding down your assigned CC (or keeping to the sustain pedal as was in the 1.0 version of LASS), A.R.T will playback your notes in sync with your DAW’s tempo with round robin sample playback.
This is a useful tool when creating action-esque sequences that require a lot of rhythmic, shorter string passages. You can create and save your own rhythmic passages to also apply to another instrument.
Here is a short video quickly detailing the ART tool:
The sound of LASS is impressive, ranging from opulent, rich legato lines to crystal clear samples defining shorter articulations. The library offers a lot of control and customizable settings.
It’s noticeable that LASS has a very defined dynamic range where pianissimo actually sounds like pianissimo, rather than something close to it.
This is a sample library that is used in most composer studios across LA — and for good reason. Due to its complex divisi engine, this library sounds superbly realistic and impresses me every time I hear it. It will make you wonder, “are these strings recorded live?” This is a worthwhile investment for a serious composer.
If you miss a sale period and consider purchasing, hold off and do some research so you are familiar with the sound, its capabilities, and how to navigate the UI. This will buy you back some time for when a new sale pops up! After all, it’s not the VSTi libraries that make a composer sound good, but understanding them will make you better.
For instance, LASS can be mixed with other string libraries to create a different sound palette — for instance Spitfire and LASS work well together!
Click here to listen to some audio demos using LASS. As you can hear, the demos sound eerily similar to a live string section! LASS is renowned with keeping its authenticity and many composers and colleagues agree to LASS as being a template must-have.
8Dio Anthology Strings
8Dio’s Anthology Strings is the re-imagination of 8Dio’s Adagio and Agitato string series and includes 66,500 samples hand-picked from both collections. The library was designed by composer and producer, Troels Folmann, and composer and orchestrator, Collin O’Malley.
It contains ensemble, divisi, as well as solo string sections. The strings were recorded inside a church instead of a typical closed studio setup like most other string libraries. In spite of the recording location, these samples are not heavy in reverb and sound quite natural.
As mentioned above, each string instrument sample contains three sections: ensemble, divisi (chamber), and solo. The ensemble is the largest section with an expressive, full sound; the divisi section is similar in size to a small chamber ensemble which features a closer, intimate sound; and the solos are a single solo instrument from each section, Solo Violin, Solo Viola, Solo Cello, and Solo Bass.
When loading an Ensemble patch, you have the option to load or un-load sections to save on computer resources as you work. You can do this by clicking on “Section Mixer” which brings up a diagram of where the strings are seated in the mix, then clicking the circle within each section; a hollow circle represents the patches that are not loaded, and the filled in circle represents active loaded patches.
8Dio has a built-in support guide that provides an overview of tools and what CC value is set to what controller. You can re-assign these to suit your workflow and if you ever need a refresher on these assignments, the “?” icon on the top right of the UI will open up the guide.
Keyswitches control different articulations on the loaded sample. In the middle of the window lies the articulations browser with a note beside it such as “C0” or “C#0” — these act as the keyswitch.
The left panel features settings including dynamics, expression and relative volume. The right panel displays microphone positions as mixed, close or far.
Some of the articulations include sustain 1 and 2 (there are two recorded sustains with a varying amount of vibrato — sustain 2 has a more natural, subtle vibrato sound), sordino, sordino perdition legato which mimics Thomas Newman’s renowned string mix in Road to Perdition.
There is also staccato, spiccato, tremolo, measured tremolo which syncs with your tempo and automatically includes round robin, Lourè (aka portato – a bowing style meaning to bow a succession of notes slurred together while re-articulating each one) and trills (including half, whole, third, and fourth trills).
You can also layer different articulations at the same time as others — this is a nice trick to get started quickly or to use for experimentation with sound and playstyle.
The library features three different legato articulations: legato I, legato II, and con sordino legato (aka legato mute). Legato I features the legato sounds heard from 8Dio’s Agitato libraries and is lyrical and sweeping. This is great for faster passages as the legato sounds quite articulated and clear whilst maintaining a soaring quality.
Legato II is the legato used from 8Dio’s Adagio libraries and sounds much less dramatic in character. This legato is better suited for slower passages.
The main window consists of the articulations browser and section mixer, and underneath that features global controls that adjust dynamics (from pp to ff), expression, speed, release tails, vibrato and legato volume. These knobs will change accordingly to the articulation patch you have selected.
Below them display faders that tweak the convolution reverb, microphones (mixed, close and far, as well as left and right microphone positions underneath each fader) and a basic equalizer that adjusts low, mid and high-end frequencies.
The convolution has a drop-down arrow beside it where you can select presets and experiment with different reverb settings. These basic effects are convenient to have in the main window without changing panels for ease of use.
At the bottom of the window is the Effects tab which goes into greater depth. The effects are lined up on top of each other like racks and include a phaser and flanger, EQ, degrader, delay and two extra convolution reverbs. These are all built-in effects that you can use if you wish, but loading up an instrument already sounds pretty good without any tweaking done.
Watch the walkthrough of 8Dio’s Anthology Strings Full Ensembles here. There are also some great demos of the different instruments and articulations available:
8Dio has really outdone themselves by re-working and consolidating the best samples from their Adagio and Agitato packs into one combined library with a more notably clean and intuitive interface. Those who owned Adagio and Agitato will rejoice in knowing that Anthology strings has placed all articulations in the browser on the main window instead of creating hundreds of separate instruments.
The sound of 8Dio’s strings shines with realism and I am pleased with the clarity of the sound. It is expressive and articulated, and each dynamic is heard with each section, even with the lower end strings.
Typically, low strings can sound quite muddy, but 8Dio has created a sound that can be large and weighted, or very nuanced. For fans of the 8Dio sound, this will be a natural purchase or upgrade from their previous string collections.
If you own Adagio or Agitato Strings previously and you’re looking to upgrade to Anthology, you may receive a discount, or if you own all the Adagio and Agitato libraries then Anthology is free for you.
Spitfire Symphonic Strings
Spitfire Symphonic Strings is a widely known and popular string library heavy with articulations, round robins, dynamic layers and true legato patches from each section which has been consolidated from Spitfire’s previous Mural Series/Ensembles libraries.
The library was recorded at AIR Studios in London founded by Sir George Martin, who was the producer for The Beatles.
Spitfire Symphonic Strings contains 60 string instruments with over 175 articulations including legato patches. For the gear lovers: the library was recorded using valve and ribbon mics with Neve Montserrat pre-amps into a Neve 88R desk.
Spitfire Symphonic Strings library is a compilation of its previous strings libraries, Mural Vol. 1–3 and the Mural Ensembles library with an updated simplified interface.
There are a multitude of articulations which Spitfire categorizes as extended techniques featuring core techniques and decorative techniques; individual articulations, legato techniques and other patches featuring economic, light and time machine patches.
Some of the unique articulations that Spitfire has created for this library include super sul tasto, legato sul G, and flautandao. Altogether, there are over 175 articulations including 59 short articulations, 94 long articulations and 5 performance legato patches.
Walkthrough on Spitfire Symphonic Strings’ performance legato:
The main interface when you load up an instrument displays techniques such as sustain, con sordino, and tremolos and includes a close and far mic fader, easy mix diagram, as well as basic controllers for dynamics, vibrato, release, and expression.
Using the close mic position allows you to hear more clarity within the articulations, while using the ambience mic sets a tone where you can hear the depth and size of the orchestra. The tree mic is commonly used as it sounds good in most settings.
There is a spanner icon to the left of the UI which changes the window to display further options such as presets, purge unused samples and round robin settings. Notice the controllers and mic faders (now showing [C]lose, [T]ree and [A]mbient mics) are displayed for further tweaking and convenience.
The last view is the ostinatum view where you can create ostinato patterns which is similar to how an arpeggiator works. You can create up to 8 patterns and assign each to a key switch. You create the notes and/or chords to play and the order they are played in, as well as the rhythm they play.
For accented notes, adjust the velocity bar on the respective notes. The general controls panel and ostinatum windows are definitely bonuses that add to the library, but for someone looking to quickly create a string mockup and get to writing, sticking to the main UI window works just fine.
Another feature Spitfire put into the library are built-in pop-up bubbles to help the user navigate their way around the UI without consulting a manual. There is an option to turn this off, so it doesn’t become an annoyance once you are comfortable working with this library.
There are some previews of the different string sections and some of the various articulations patches — these are worth watching to hear the strings by themselves without any external processing!
This is a piece I wrote specifically to show off the sound in Spitfire Symphonic Strings. The piece uses con sordino violins with a staccato string ensemble, as well as a cello solo instrument. Note that I used a lot of close mic positions here:
One of the nice things about this library is that you can load up a patch and get writing immediately. No tweaking is necessary as the sound of the samples are very good in their default state.
Of course, as simply as the UI is designed, the tool has great depth. You can adjust things such as the 3 different mics, expression controllers, round robins, triggering articulations by use of key switches, MIDI channels, the speed at which you play at, velocity, or by CC change, as well as tune parameters such as sample start and release time.
This library is another industry-standard and many A-list composers and producers use it in their studios. The sound is phenomenal, emotional and lyrical, and is one of my go-to string libraries.
I would recommend this to both beginners to string VSTs or to veterans. Navigating and using the library is simple enough for new users and advanced enough for veterans.
* Educational discount available (eligible for a 30% discount, be sure to provide a valid student/staff ID)