Now that you’ve established a foundation for your music studio and business, it’s time to focus on building your sample instrument arsenal. There are hundreds of companies vying for your attention – many sample instruments and plugins are good, but only a handful are great among the sea of saturation.
Keep in mind that some of these companies offer educational discounts around 30% off and most give significant discounts on Cyber Monday week each year, up to 70% off! Waiting for these sales can go a long way, especially if you plan to buy multiple products at once. Also know that it may take several years to acquire a full setup. I suggest only purchasing what you need to compose for a current project. In many cases, you can add a Music Gear line item to your project budgets to afford the purchase of new libraries. I’ve done this many times to great effect, specifically when a client has requested a sound or instrument that I didn’t have – I would just add the cost of that purchase to my bill in order to enhance the quality of my music and clients have happily paid for this every time.
Here’s my top list for any music composer on a budget seeking to assemble a balanced tool belt for composing any orchestral or electronic soundtrack:
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– SYNTHS –
If I could only choose one purchase to last the rest of my career as a composer, it would be Komplete 12 Ultimate by Native Instruments. This insane bundle includes over 100 products and effects, 47,000 sounds, and over 600GB of library content! Most notable in the bundle is Kontakt, a sampler that allows you to create your own sample instruments from scratch. This one plugin has single-handedly changed the way I write music and develop my unique sonic fingerprint. Other staple instruments include Massive, Absynth, FM8, and Reaktor – all incredibly deep synthesizers that allow you to create an infinite supply of custom electronic sounds from the ground up. Battery is an amazingly useful drum machine and the gigantic number of orchestral instruments, rock instruments, ethnic instruments, and pianos in Komplete is truly all-inclusive. Specific to the Ultimate version are Damage (the premier industrial percussion engine), Evolve cinematic sounds bundle, Symphony Essentials (woodwinds, brass, strings), industry-leading piano samples Una Corda and Alicia’s Keys, and so much more. When comparing versions, I don’t recommend Komplete 12 Select due to the lack of full-version Kontakt (it only includes the free Kontakt Player) and its very mild selection of synths. When you purchase through Amazon, this Ultimate bundle includes a physical external hard drive to house all the samples, so this is a great deal to take advantage of.
Omnisphere is the industry-standard synth sampler. I’ve never seen a professional studio without it. I use Omnisphere in almost every track I write. Its extensive library contains thousands of useful presets – most notably Synth Pads, Synth Leads, and Keyboards of all kinds.
Zebra 2 is my favorite synthesizer, used by Hans Zimmer on many of his film scores. Urs Heckmann designed this synth to mimic analog modular synths. Zimmer’s exact patches from the Dark Knight film series can be purchased in the Dark Zebra expansion.
– BRASS –
There are numerous brass libraries on the market, but only one that I consider a true catch-all for all genres. CineSamples records all its orchestral libraries at the iconic Sony Pictures Scoring Stage in Los Angeles, so their libraries capture a distinct Hollywood sound. CineSamples splits all its orchestral articulations into two packs – Core and Pro. The Core versions contain all basic short and long articulations and the Pro features even more interesting play styles and European orchestral instruments. I consider both essential for a balanced orchestral library palette.
– WOODWINDS –
CineWinds Core and Pro are the industry standards for woodwinds. Core includes the basic short and long articulations of the standard woodwind section (flutes, oboes, Bb clarinets, and bassoons). Pro features the extended woodwind section (alto and bass flutes, English horn, Eb clarinets) and multiple great non-orchestral woodwinds, such as the Uilleann pipes, whistles, and recorders.
If you already own a woodwind ensemble library, picking up Claire Woodwinds will fill in your need for solo woodwinds – the heart of emotional orchestral music. This library contains seven deeply sampled legato solo woodwinds, including: Piccolo, Flute, Alto Flute, Oboe, English Horn, Bb Clarinet, and Bassoon. Each instrument is crafted for ultra-realistic performances, featuring patches for both slow and fast passages. These are the most realistic orchestral samples I have ever used. If the higher price is a concern, consider picking up any of the solo woodwinds individually for $138 each.
Berlin Woodwinds was the leading woodwind library for several years before CineWinds. Some composers still prefer it. It has a small roster, but each instrument is deeply sampled for detail. The full list includes Piccolo, Flute, Alto Flute, Oboe, English Horn, Bb Clarinet, and Bassoon. Flute Ensemble and Bb Clarinet Ensemble patches are also included. Berlin Woodwinds Revive is a new version featuring updated sample recordings.
– STRINGS –
Spitfire has the highest-quality string libraries on the market, but they are also the most expensive by far. Spitfire is in the United Kingdom, so all their recordings have a distinct British film sound. They have dedicated string ensembles for every scoring occasion, so browse through their guide to choosing the most appropriate for your needs.
Adagietto Strings is the most price-sensitive string collection on the market. Its roster is simple with only 4 instruments: Violin, Viola, Cello, and Double Bass. Each instrument is deeply sampled with the most realistic legato, staccato, spiccato, tremolo, and pizzicato patches. You won’t find extended techniques here (trills, glissandos, col legno, etc.), but when combined with Spitfire strings, this is a powerhouse budget combo.
– PERCUSSION –
Rhapsody Orchestral Percussion is a one-stop product for all orchestral percussion essentials. This pack includes 50 traditional and extended percussion instruments recorded through three mic positions. These clean recordings are neither clinically dry nor overly epic. This flexible library is designed for the full range of scoring – from intimate cues to dramatic and bombastic.
When you need edgy, modern percussion for hybrid scores, Damage is the solution. This pack includes both loop and kits classified into four styles: Epic Organic, Epic Tech, Industrial Electronic, and Mangled Pop. My most-used patches are the epic Armageddon Ensemble and metallic Dumpster, highly useful when scoring movie trailers and television commercials. Keep in mind that Damage is included in Komplete 12 Ultimate and buying this within a bundle will save you hundreds.
– CHOIR –
There are numerous choir libraries on the market, but Requiem Light is my top budget recommendation. It contains full choir, male choir, female choir, and soloists with legato vowels, staccato shouts, and a phrase builder. Even though this library is slightly dated, Requiem Light remains my favorite sample choir in any epic orchestral scoring situation. Its older brother Requiem Professional by 8DIO contains more patches, but at the steeper price point of $548.
This choir only features one simple Ooo articulation, but this instrument is too good to be free. This choir is at home in any soft, ambient orchestral track.
– ETHNIC / WORLD –
With over 320 ethnic instruments (50,000 samples) and 8,000 loops and phrases, this collection of traditional instruments from around the globe is essential. This one suite fills in the gap where Komplete 12 Ultimate and all the above orchestral libraries fall short. World music is often overlooked by composers but is a crucial piece for crafting modern soundtracks for international markets. This pack features instrument categories: Africa, Asia, Australia, Celtic, Eastern Europe, India, Indonesia, Middle East, Occidental, South America, Spanish Gypsy, and West Indies.
– CHIPTUNE –
If you’re seeking to create authentic retro video game music, DefleMask is the best tracker available. Unlike DAWs, trackers notate music through hexadecimal code and require a bit of learning. The result is well worth the effort though. DefleMask allows you to compose chiptunes for SEGA Genesis, SEGA Master System, Nintendo Game Boy, NEC PC-Engine, Nintendo NES, Commodore 64, and Arcade System – all with the same coding language. When you finish a track, you can export it as a WAV (to be used in a game engine) or a VGM/MMF/ROM to port it directly into the original console hardware. Best of all, Deflemask is free and available on both PC and Mac. FamiTracker is another great free tracker but doesn’t support as many game consoles and is only for PC.
If you plan to compose video game music in a DAW, Chipsounds is a must-have. Thankfully, traditional 8Bit channels (pulse wave, triangle wave, and white noise) are easy to emulate freely in most default DAW synths. However, when you decide to dive deeper into recreating vintage sounds such as old arcade chips, Atari 2600, Commodore 64, etc., your options are to compose in a tracker, acquire the actual hardware, or use Chipsounds in a DAW. As much as I enjoy composing in trackers, there are times when I need the flexibility of composing MIDI in a DAW with the exact retro sounds.
Super Audio Boy is another great free tool for quickly composing 8Bit chiptunes. This is my go-to plugin for writing Nintendo NES and Game Boy music in a DAW. I enjoy its clean interface that already contains pulse waves separated by pulse width, drum samples, and SFX – all designed specifically for NES and Game Boy music. Its big brother Super Audio Cart ($149) contains patches for Atari 2600, Commodore 64, Nintendo NES, Nintendo Famicom, Nintendo Game Boy, Super Nintendo, SEGA Master System, and SEGA Genesis.
The 16Bit Super Nintendo sound is characterized by highly-compressed samples. Most SNES composers created their own samples by compressing sounds from Yamaha keyboards into small enough sizes to fit on the limited game cartridge memory – the result was a unique instrument palette for each game. Thankfully, It Might Get Loud Productions has done this sampling and compression process with the Koji Keyboard. This simple library includes 57 instruments, all crafted for instant composing out-of-the-box. I have found the Koji Keyboard to be a vital addition to my 16Bit Super Nintendo template.
– BOUTIQUE –
New sample instrument companies enter the global market every year and many of the smaller teams produce unique content at an impressively low cost! Some of my personal favorites include the Embertone Chapman Trumpet and the free Bolder Sounds Harmonica.
– PIANO –
Keyscape is the industry-standard keyboard sampler. This massive collection features 36 keyboard models, including the famous Yamaha C7 grand, Rhodes electric pianos, Wurlitzers, Planets, Clavichord, and many more. I use the pianos in this library on almost every project. As a bonus, all Keyscape patches can be loaded directly into Omnisphere 2 to create versatile multis.
This felt piano is extremely soft and will need to be compressed or doubled with another piano to be audible in your mix, but this is the most beautiful, intimate piano sample I have every used…and it’s free! This is an ideal piano sample for soft film scenes. Spitfire Labs also offers other free instruments that are well-worth downloading.
– MIXING –
The best mixers in the world use the least number of plugins. Yet, there are thousands of products on the market to choose from, most of which sell you the idea that you need large bundles of plugins to achieve a great mix. Instead, I encourage you to invest in a small number of high-quality mixing plugins and learn to use each well. Every composer needs a quality equalizer (EQ), compressor, reverb, delay, limiter, ultramaximizer, and mastering suite. You will find all these with FabFilter Pro-Q 3 and Pro-C 2, Waves Gold or Silver bundle, 2CAudio Aether, and iZotope Ozone 8 Advanced. Only after acquiring these basic mixing essentials should you consider adding more experimental plugins to your palette like Sound Toys, iZotope RX, or iZotope Iris.
What are the most valuable sample instruments in my music studio? Why?
When was the last time I upgraded my sample instruments or plugins to have a higher quality sound?
What is one sample instrument or plugin investment I can make soon to add more value to my business?