Disclaimer: This is not an orchestral library product review. I’m simply suggesting the best mindset to have when making purchasing decisions.
I started using sample libraries since 2004. Take orchestral sample libraries for example; back then, there weren’t quite as many different orchestral libraries to choose from. There was Reason, East West/Quantum leap, Kirk Hunter, VSL, Garritan and a few others. Today, there’s at least between 1-2 dozen different companies with multiple library selections enticing you with all sorts of state of the art features and fancy names.
Long story cut short, it has become more frustrating trying to decide which sample libraries works for you...or rather, how many do you actually need?
When I began my journey into the exciting world of MIDI compositions, I got myself extremely obsessed with sample libraries. I knew I wasn’t going to have the luxury of having frequent recording sessions, so I made it a point to master the art of the MIDI orchestra. I was a student back then and I was broke, what I could afford was a $10/month subscription to a file sharing site that had literally every sample library in existence...let the downloading begin!
(By the way, I’m not advocating for the illegal download of anything, but that’s what I did back then and have since purchased all my libraries)
For a few years, I spent every waking moment figuring out the most effective methods of using orchestral libraries and making them sound “real”. From meddling with the CC(mod wheel, expression, volume) to layering different libraries to swapping reverbs, tweaking EQ’s etc. At my peak, I had an estimate of 500GB worth of orchestral libraries alone - Not a lot in today’s standards, but back then that was in the ballpark of 10+ libraries.
After years of meddling and lots of $$$ spent, I have found what I believe to be the 5 best practical tips to buying orchestral sample libraries.
1) Understand yourself as a composer
Yes, understanding yourself is the crucial first step. What kind of composer are you? What types of music do you compose? Are you the modern cinematic composer? Or are you the virtuoso type? Chamber? Film? Pop? Etc…
What type of composer you are will determine what you should buy, or at least it will narrow down your purchasing selection because it’s very easy to spend thousands if not more on sample libraries. For example, I’m a minimalist composer who needs only 4 articulations at most(Legato, Stacc, Spicc and maybe Cog Legno/harmonics), so naturally I won’t be gravitated towards libraries that feature heavily on their vast articulation selection.
If you’re blessed with a fat bank account and a godzilla of a computer, by all means buy every available library out there and find out what works for you at your own comfort.
2) Selecting orchestral sample libraries as you would picking a live orchestra
Let’s say you’ve been commissioned to write for a particular orchestra. Would you be writing what you want the orchestra to play without consideration of its technical ability, or would you be writing what the orchestra is best at playing or to its technical limitations? If you’re a result oriented person, more often than not it’d be the latter. As a composer, you’ll want to know what the orchestra is good at and what its technical limitations are. We can’t expect to have a strictly classical ensemble sound convincingly cinematic or have a student orchestra play to the level of seasoned professionals...right?
The above probably sounds like common sense to most people, but most composers don’t think that way when it comes to writing with sample libraries. I see many composers, from amateurs to seasoned professionals use sample libraries rather inefficiently because instead of writing to the sample’s technical limitations, they just unleash all they’ve got without much consideration whether the sample library is made for that particular type of composition or not.
The result of such use usually spawns comments such as “That fast passage sounds fake”, “The shorts don’t have enough bite”, “The legato transition isn’t smooth enough” among many others. While there are some production techniques that can be applied to rectify some of the problems, it’s best to start with a library that’s suited to your style of composing.
If you want to know what any given sample library is good at doing, listen to the technical demos made by the developers. They know what it’s good for..because they made it! You’ll very rarely find one sample library specializing in many different styles.
Yes yes, I get it… samples are used only for “mockup” purposes and will be replaced with live orchestra eventually. While this may be the rule 15-20 years ago, how true is it in this day and age? Especially when budgets are shrinking by the day, and client’s expect a turnaround in the blink of an eye. Sampled compositions have already become the norm, and it is very possible to produce very very realistic ones - If you know what you’re doing. So it’s time to start treating your orchestral libraries as “real” orchestras.
3) Buy because it works for you, not because it’s the hot trending one out there
More often than not, I see young professional composers riding the trend wave when it comes to purchasing sample libraries. Instead of buying based on need, they buy because it’s the hottest sample library on the market with all the attractive features that through the powers of marketing and god like demos, makes it absolutely irresistible.
Back in the day, the sample library market emerged to meet the needs of composers that wanted to be able to instantaneously listen to the music they’ve penned. There weren’t many choices and purchasing was made simple. As the industry grew bigger over time, more and more companies flood the market, each needing to out-edge their competitors by introducing new features and marketing them in ways that will attract the attention of consumers.
As the marketing campaigns intensifiy, the winner would end up being the “hot trending” one and naturally be the hot topic of the industry. This is where most composers would succumb to the marketing campaigns and buy because it’s hot and not because that’s what they need. If you’re a composer, ask yourself this: Have you ever bought a sample library because you felt you absolutely had to have it, but ended up not even using it more than a couple of times? I know I have...on many many occasions.
4) Spend your precious $$$ wisely...
Assuming you don’t own a big fat bank account, composers these days(including myself) are in a pretty tough position. Apart from the many sample libraries on the market trying to take a portion of our hard earned wealth away, the intense competition from fellow composers puts pressure on us to out-edge the others in many creative ways.
One popular way composers try to outshine the others is by getting samples with the hottest new features, and they often sound like this: “Recorded in the legendary XXX halls”, with vintage XXX mics, boards and compressors, “Scripted with the state of the art technologies” etc etc. This results in a never ending cash splurging race.
For this, I’d like to use the analogy of women with their shoes and handbags. What you’ll end up having is a collection of samples that you paid full price for and barely used it - Just like the shoes and handbags. There’s nothing wrong with the samples, as a matter of fact it’s good that the companies are working tirelessly to offer us the best there is. The problem lies in how we buy and use them.
Instead of buying 5 libraries costing $3000 and only using each only a handful of times. Buy 1-2 that cost $1000 that really works for you, learn them inside out and master them. In terms of ROI(Return Of Investment) it’s a much better return if u maximized the usage of a few instead of minimal usage of many. You won’t magically attract more gigs because you have more “superior” sample libraries. It’s not how many you have, or how popular they are. It’s how you use them and how well you sell your services.
It is tempting to buy everything in the market to give ourselves the sonic edge we so desire. But as with the purchasing habits of any kind of product, be a smart consumer, if not you’d end up having a goldmine of samples and no money for rent - The difference with shoes/handbags is that, they have some kind of resale value, whereas you can’t resell your samples.
5) Price shouldn’t be a determining factor
When I started out my career as a composer, prices of orchestral sample libraries came in a wide range. You could find something as cheap as $100 to ones that cost upward of $10,000. Back then, because the market was mainly geared towards well established composers, price really made a difference in terms of sonic quality. But as the market started gearing towards composers of all experience levels, prices for orchestral sample libraries started stabilizing around the $1000-1500 range for a decent sounding full orchestral sample library(Choir excluded).
I personally believe that apart from the non-audio related quality indicators such as reputation, years of experience and credit list, the quality of your content will determine the rate you’re able to demand. Quality can be determined by your composition and the sounds used. Having said that, professional and aspiring composers shouldn’t be thrifty about their tools, especially since the price difference isn’t as wide as they were.
Some composers believe that they should start low and upgrade their tool set as they work their way up. This would be a much preferred method 10-15 years ago as the price difference from one to the next were quite substantial. These days, the difference between a lower end library and a good one is small enough to warrant a slight hold back to save up for the better option.
Considering how competitive the market is these days, first impression really does matter. What you present at first will and can determine your standing amongst your peers and can very well affect your career down the road. There are also some sample library companies that are offering composers subscription deals where you pay a fixed monthly/annual fee as low as $30/month to access their full product range.
In conclusion, there's no sure fire formula of how to approach purchasing orchestral sample libraries..or anything for that matter. This article is primarily geared towards young aspiring professional composers with limited $$$ to spend and helping them condition their spending habits to what they need rather than to splurge beyond their limits.
Hope this helps! :)