By Rich Tozzoli.
It’s usually a good sign when you sit down with a new piece of software and the first word out of your mouth is “Wow.” That’s just what happened after installing East West’s Hollywood Strings Diamond Edition. This powerful virtual instrument truly takes the art of sampled string production to a new level.
Arriving on a raw hard drive due to its massive 310GB size, I transferred it to a brand-new 1TB FW 800 drive and ran it on my 2 X 3 GHz Dual-Core Intel Xeon. They do suggest an SSD (Solid State) drive for optimal streaming, but it will run on a more traditional drive if it’s fast enough. Software installation and online authorization (iLok needed) literally took just a few minutes--and I was quickly up and running.
While Hollywood Strings was produced by Doug Rogers, Nick Pheonix and composer/orchestrator Thomas Bergesen, they also worked with award-winning engineer Shawn Murphy. The actual sessions were done in East West’s own Studio 1 using a Neve 8078 with Meitner ADC converters. Fifty-seven top-flight LA string players were tracked as sections of 16 1st Violins, 14 2nd Violins (separately recorded), 10 Violas, 10 Cellos and 7 Basses. Quite an undertaking to say the least.
The 24-bit, 44.1 kHz library uses string sections and not solo instruments and/or chambers. This is all about big sound here. While there are individual sections of Violins, Violas, Cellos and Basses, you can also simply call up a Full Strings patch if you want access to many instruments at once.
The samples are accessed through their proprietary PLAY software, updated to Version 2.0 to accommodate the 2,900 instruments and over 800,000 samples. It can be run stand alone or within your DAW host (RTAS, VST, AU).
Aside from the usual articulations such as Spiccato, Pizzicato, Marcato and so on, they include such things as major and minor runs, which can add incredible realism to string compositions (when done correctly of course). Also, there’s up and down bow sustains and 3 styles of the ever-utilized legato (which are simply notes connected together on the staff and played smoothly without interruption). Included are some heavy-duty patches that feature legato bow change, slur and portamento. This type of velocity sensitive patch will crossfade between the various articulations depending on how hard and/or fast you hit the keyboard.
Of importance is the fact that with most patches in HS, CC#11 (expression pedal) is used for dynamics, whereas CC#1 (mod wheel) is used for vibrato. However, CC#11 is not just traditional MIDI volume like in other libraries; it actually crossfades between real dynamics. When sitting down at the keyboard and playing with an expression controller and the mod wheel, it took a little getting used to. However, the results once learned sound magnificent.
Running PLAY within Pro Tools 8.1, I was able to take advantage of such things as measured tremolo articulations--where the patch actually syncs to the song tempo. Yes, it uses time stretch manipulations, but it really does work. They also nicely followed tempo changes - a reality in any kind of TV/Media/Film work. Working with Con Sordino (‘with the mute’), it uses EQ to ‘filter’ the samples, but again, it gets the job done. There is so much in this library already, you simply can’t have everything.
It also takes a little time to learn the patch nomenclature of HS, but it’s actually quite easy one you understand it. Users have a choice over such things as finger positions, voices per note (up to 16!), down bows, up bows, round robins and so on. In sampling terms, round robin is an important factor where the software engine automatically alternates between separate recordings of the same note, providing a more realistic sound.
I like that several different ‘microphones’ per patch can be loaded (of course using up more RAM with each one). Close, Mid, Main (Decca Tree), Vintage or Surround each have their own sonic depth and character and can be individually mixed/panned/output to create a customized blend. My personal favorite was to use a combination of Mid and Vintage with a touch of Main. It delivers a super warm, wide image that when combined with the built in reverb, is simply stunning. But since they do take up a lot of RAM, I often found myself printing the track and hiding the MIDI. I could then go back and re-render the track with any combination of mic positions later on.
Speaking of reverb, it can be assigned to individual patches or across the Master to conserve DSP. The production team recorded all its own convolution verbs and many are new impulses right from the Quantum Leap Spaces collection. Reverb is critical to good string sounds, and there are some excellent ones included, my favorites being the Burbank Scoring Stage Medium and EW Hall + Church.
System requirements, as you might expect for a product of this nature, can get heavy. Check out the website at www.soundsonline.com for specifics relating to your system. Certainly, you’ll want a ton of RAM and a fast computer/drive setup, or frustration will set in quickly. However, there is a Gold Edition also available in 16-bit resolution with a single mid-tree mic position.
As the useful Hollywood Strings Diamond Edition video tutorials clearly mention, it’s a large and complex library. But they have done a great job to make the user experience quite simple. If you’re looking for a top-tier software instrument to recreate strings, this is the one to turn to. While this product is not cheap, coming in at nearly $1,500, I’ll say it one more time: “Wow.”
This short example uses 1st Violins, 2nd Violins, Viola, Cello and Bass. Convolution reverb is all within the Play engine. No fader moves were done in mixing. All dynamics were done using CC#1 and CC#11.