Thanks to the improved quality of VST plugins, it is now possible to get realistic sounding orchestral instruments in your music without the need to hire a session musician.
Music purists may not like the idea of reproducing classical instruments using an orchestral VST plugin, but there are some very useful options available which can completely transform your production.
This post highlights, in my opinion, the best options when it comes to orchestral VST plugins. There is a lot of variation within this list so I will provide detailed breakdowns of each VST’s individual qualities.
Best Orchestral VST Plugins - Paid Options
Table of Contents
- Best Orchestral VST Plugins - Paid Options
- Free Orchestral VST Plugins
- Orchestra VST Plugins – What to Look For
- Mixing Capabilities
If you’re looking for authentic sounds orchestral instruments, look no further than the Leap Symphonic Orchestra. The variety of natural sounding instruments was recorded by acclaimed classical recording engineer Professor Keith O. Johnson. All of the sounds were captured in a modern concert hall in order to make them sound as realistic as possible.
The main selling point of this orchestral plugin is its attention to detail. In order to make strings sound natural, the slight nuances must be captured. Johnson and EastWest/Quantum have certainly achieved this through the meticulous recording process. Each instrument was recorded using three microphone positions which you can mix together within the VST to fine-tune the sound.
Not only does Leap Symphonic Orchestra provide you with incredible sounding instruments, it also has useful mixing and processing capabilities built into the software. You can add effects such as reverbs and delays, and also create stereo imaging.
Whether you are looking for subtle orchestral additions to your songs, or want to create dramatic soundtracks to accompany video, this VST is the complete package. It’s quite astonishing how close it comes to the real sound of orchestral instruments, and this is a testament to the attention to detail.
IK Multimedia’s Miroslav Philharmonik 2 come equipped with a huge library of over 700 orchestral instruments. These instruments cover the full spectrum of an orchestra; strings, brass, woodwind and percussion.
The sounds are very high quality and realistic. The human element of playing the instruments has been successfully captured, giving the sounds a natural richness.
The layout of Philharmonik 2 CE is very simple and easy to navigate your way around. Each of the 700 instruments are clearly categorized so you can quickly toggle through a family of instruments until you find the individual sound you’re looking for.
You can then manipulate the way the instruments are played, with techniques such as legato, detache and staccato all available. These options really give the overall sound a feel of authenticity.
Also included with the VST are 34 of IK Multimedia’s best plug-in effects from their SampleTank3 software. This allows you to process the instruments and add a wider range of audio effects.
For hip-hop or electronic production, this editing facility is great for creating orchestral samples to base your beats around. For more traditional styles of composing, you can add hall reverbs to the tracks to make them sound even more natural.
The Orchestal Companion Strings VST by SONiVOX is crammed full of emotion inducing string sounds that sound so realistic you’d struggle to tell them apart from a live recording. There are over 90 string programs included in this plugin, each one producing a stunningly accurate representation of real strings.
The flexibility of the Orchestral Companion Strings VST makes it possible to customize every section of the audio, with different bowing techniques and sustained styles of playing available for you to tweak.
Obviously, the thing missing from the plugin is other orchestral instruments. Thankfully, the Orchestral Companion software is available in both brass and woodwind editions.
These versions are basically the same as the string version in terms of layout and capabilities. Acquiring all three would give you a complete, realistic sounding orchestra at your disposal.
Native Instruments are known for producing a number of premium quality VST plugins, so it’s no surprise that their Komplete 12 Production Suite is one of the best options on this list.
With this software, not only do you gain access to the outstanding orchestral sounds of Symphony Essentials Collection – you also get some awesome synth and guitar plugins too. Overall there is a mighty 600 GB of content which is made up of over 100 instruments and effects in many variations.
The orchestral section of this bundle provides you with a comprehensive set of sampled instruments which are ideal for scores and classical pieces. There are pre-sets specifically for dramatic movie soundtracks, as well as sound design tools which allow you to add layers of effects to the instruments.
This is without a doubt the most complete VST plugin bundle available. It’s more costly than many of the other options on this list, but bear in mind you are getting probably ten times the amount of software with Komplete 12.
The Orchestra is a highly interactive VST plugin which is straightforward to use and features some polished orchestral instruments. Each instrument has been accurately recorded in order to capture the natural elements of the performances.
A standout feature in my opinion is the “Ensemble Engine”. This combines a number of velocity envelopes and arpeggiators to give the instruments a natural variance. You can create complex rhythms and combinations of notes using this tool.
The Orchestra also allows users to load up to five instruments independently, then play them as an ensemble. For classical composition, this is an invaluable feature because you are able to hear your pieces as if they are being played by a full orchestra with the full range of accompaniments.
Garritan’s Personal Orchestra 5 provides you with a complete orchestral set-up compacted into a simple plugin. Whether you need access to realistic sounding strings, percussion, woodwinds or brass – this VST can do the lot.
New to version 5 of Personal Orchestra is the addition of specific instrument articulations and techniques.
There are a total of over 500 unique instruments at your disposal. The samples themselves are of a good quality and not lacking in expression. The usability of Personal Orchestra 5 makes it simplistic and easy to familiarize yourself with.
The way this VST works is by separating all of the instruments of an orchestra and focusing on their individual sounds. You can specifically alter the characteristics of the instruments in order to change the feel of the whole mix. It is suitable for use within a DAW or with notation software.
Although this plugin isn’t as extensive as some of the other I’ve listed in terms of processing capabilities, it is an easily usable option which produces high quality sounds, and is definitely worth considering.
Orchestral Suite by UVI is a classy plugin which gives you access to a library of over 60 classical instruments from strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion and even a full choir. Also included are other classical instruments including harpsichords, classical guitars and a cathedral organ.
UVI has done a remarkable job of capturing the natural elements of the instruments. This is down to a highly detailed recording process. There are many variations of articulations, playing styles and alternates available so you can adjust the subtle details to create your desired orchestral soundtracks.
The VST is intuitive and laid out in a logical manner. The built in key-switch system allows you to quickly edit the instruments articulation to create complex sounding performances.
The advanced convolution reverb can be used within your chosen DAW to soften the sounds of the instruments or create an atmosphere.
Free Orchestral VST Plugins
If you are on a strict budget, here are some decent free VST plugins which are worth getting.
- VSCO 2 CE – 3GB of good quality samples in a simplistic VST plugin which are fairly realistic sounding.
- One Track Orchestra – An easy to use keyboard styled VST plugin with a handful of orchestral sounds.
- Layers – Includes some good audio processing options.
- Virtual Playing Orchestra – Limited number of instruments available but a good overall quality of sounds.
- LABS – The best free option in my opinion.
Obviously these free options are lacking in the quality that the previous listed VST plugins provide, but they are still worth adding to your plugin folder.
Orchestra VST Plugins – What to Look For
VST plugins tend to be very hit and miss. While one producer may find that a particular plugin works perfectly for them, another may find the same one very difficult to use.
To help you choose the right orchestra VST for your productions, here are the key things you need to look out for.
It could be said that an orchestra VST is only as good as the quality of its sound library and samples. If these aspects are not of a high standard, the other features of the plugin will be rendered ineffective.
Orchestra VST designers use many different processes to create the sounds of instruments and effects within their plugins. This includes sampling, synthesis and performance modeling.
Usually, the more effort that has gone into creating the orchestral samples, the better they will sound. Were they recorded in a high-end studio by top engineers? How many microphones were used to record each instrument? These are key things to look out for.
Thanks to the recording and sampling techniques I just mentioned, orchestra VSTs are able to produce incredibly realistic sounds from horns, strings, woodwind, brass, percussion and other instrument families.
The thing that separates a great plugin from a mediocre one, is how it allows you to adjust certain properties of the samples to your liking.
For example, if you have chosen a string sound and recorded a melody into the plugin, some VSTs will allow you to change the bowing technique used, make the notes or staccato, or even switch the type of microphone that was used to capture the sound.
For horn and brass instruments, much of the sound comes from the breath control of the individual. Sophisticated orchestra plugins even allow you to control this aspect to deliberately create the exact timbre you have in mind.
Your chosen DAW is likely to be your preferred choice for mixing instruments and tracks within a composition, but many orchestra VSTs feature specific tools for processing the sounds and samples they include.
Panning & Stereo Imaging
Panning and stereo imaging are very useful features of an Orchestral VST especially if you are using several instruments or tracks simultaneously within the software.
This allows you to spread the various orchestral instruments across the stereo field, creating a feeling of separation and width and thus making the arrangement seem more like a genuine performance by an ensemble of musicians.
Indeed, you could pan the tracks within your DAW, but I find it easier to do this within a plugin first so that they are grouped as one stereo imaged block, which reduces the clutter in your main sequencer.
Reverb, EQ, and Compression
Another useful aspect of some VST orchestra plugins is their built-in effects rack. You might be wondering why you’d need this if you already have plenty of effects in your recording software.
Different effects plugins are designed for different applications, with many of them suitable for drums, vocals, guitars, or synths.
The reverbs, compressors, and EQ units included in an orchestra VST are likely to be designed purposefully for compatibility with the instruments that the plugin contains. For example, the reverb may be a reproduction of a concert hall or theatre.
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You should now have enough information on the best orchestral VST plugins available to decide which would be worthy additions to your set-up. It’s always exciting to get new software and figure out all of its capabilities and nuances.
A good way to learn quickly is to try and recreate sections of songs which contain orchestral instruments. This gets you familiar with the layout of the plugin and its various controls.