On May, Friday the 13th, 2011, a video was posted comparing East West’s Hollywood Strings to products A and B. I don’t own this library, but there was a single word used in this review that, for lack of a better expression, haunted me a bit. The word was fair. Having coordinated beta test teams, beta tested, and co-produced an orchestral sample library, along with continuing to write reviews on sample libraries, it got me thinking as to whether or not comparing one string library to another makes for a fair review.

After watching the video several times, I came to the conclusion that if there was ever a library that needed a hug, it was Hollywood Strings.

That’s because this library has features that are rarely talked about and it’s these features that are the real story of this library. I came to this conclusion after downloading and reading the Hollywood Strings PDF manual.

Many of these features are bowings that can be cataloged as The Language of the Bow, and not the engineering/programming term, articulations. The arranger/composer who’s put in the time to learn bowings and bowing procedures will find a bow-language rarely available in many string sample libraries.

For example, if you want to write successive upbows or successive downbows, you can do it. This means that within a MIDI mockup, you can pull off successive downbow passages as used by Stravinsky in Petrushka and there’s the potential for setting up successive upbows as often mapped out for the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony by conductors like Felix Weingartner or Herbert von Karajan.

If you know your string positions, you know that a pitch can be played on two to four different strings depending, obviously, on the pitch. But let’s keep this simple. D above middle C can be played Sul G or open D on the D string. Though each is the same pitch, each has a different sound. With Hollywood Strings you can select either D. And tables have been worked out stating which pitches across two different strings are available. [If you want to learn more about string positions see the Strings Positions PDF Handbook at Alexander Publishing.]

Then there’s the bow change legato feature which enables you to control bow motion for more expressive playing.

Now, these are three powerful expressive features and I haven’t yet touched on its many others.

Which brings me back to the word fair.

Though publishers and readers love it, I’m not sure comparing two libraries head to head is fair. That’s because each library carries with it the aural vision of its developer. Each library has its own features that another one won’t have. Each library sounds different from the other because no competing libraries so far have ever been recorded in the same place.

When you’re producing professionally the features of one library don’t cancel out the features of the other. Instead, they become additive. Sometimes you’ll use one library over another. But over time, what usually happens is that as you learn each library, you end up creating your own “hybrid” string section, and ultimately your own virtual orchestra.

As this happens, the technology then begins genuinely serving the music and the writer because as you begin writing your music you don’t think about workarounds for bowings you wish you had because the common bowings you need are right there.

What is fair as part of the buying process is working out a factual list of features. For strings, I would order these features as follows:

1. Bowings – on the string
2. Bowings – off the string
3. Bowings – tremolos
4. Bowings – special bowings (sul tasto, sul ponticello, etc)
5. Bowings – plucked
6. Size of the ensemble recorded, by string department and totally.
7. Are there violin 2s and if so, were they recorded individually or created?
8. How is divisi handled (a question the newer music technology can now answer)?
9. How are muted strings handled and are they part of the library or a separate purchase?
10. Is there a Violins 1 + Violins 2 unison or does this have to be created by you?
11. Is the library recorded in the center stage or are string departments recorded in their seated onstage positions?
12. Other features not listed?

All of these are fair questions because they’re factual and readily available from the sales literature. Then there are three subjective questions.

1. How does the library sound?
2. How easy is it to use?
3. What is the caliber of post-sale customer training?

Questions 1 and 2 are highly subjective because the answer is so heavily dependent on the demos. Some libraries, like those from the Vienna Symphonic Library, proudly benchmark their sample libraries against published (mostly) public domain works balanced with originally produced works by end users. Others completely avoid library demos benchmarked to the classics.

However, as a writer and a reviewer, I find that benchmarking against published classical works is the only sure way of knowing what a library can do since as composers, our own recorded end results are compared to recorded symphonic sounds, be it soundtracks or other recordings.

So part of being fair, from my perspective, is respecting the end game need of the composer customer who is often using these libraries to secure work, along with self-expression.

Easy to use encompasses the graphic user interface and how the programs are named. Do the programs have easy to grasp musical names or do they resemble longitude/latitude readouts? All of this contributes to the learning curve and the length of time it takes to get going.

With the exception of PDF manuals and the occasional videos, there is no IBM-level customer training available. Most customer training comes from other customers who option to post videos. I personally think this is a bad idea for a company because once you’ve decided customer training is best left to the customers to figure out on their own, the company is now surrendering corporate leadership to others. Additional customer videos are terrific (mostly!) but primarily, the company should create its own to establish its new library by setting customer expectations, especially with “wow factor” videos that really demonstrate key features.

However, I want to first acknowledge the difficulty of this, too. How much instrumentation prowess should the company expect their customers to already know?

This is as much a design issue as it is a training one. The Vienna Symphonic Library handled it rather neatly with their Vienna Academy. This way if a customer isn’t sure what a bowing or instrument articulation is, it’s easy to look up on their site.

System Integration
I’ve held this off for last because it’s the most difficult issue to review. A problem plaguing every developer is trying to establish what are the realistic minimum system requirements and what does “minimum” mean in terms of computing performance? The word “should” ignores the reality that developers have to program backward compatibility for both the Mac and PC platforms. So a key development question is: How far back is back?

How much stuff is on the individual’s computer including virus checking software? Is the customer unknowingly mixing 32bit and 64bit in the same sequencing program and not understanding the real reason they’re running out of RAM?

In short, how knowledgeable about computing should the customer be and how much is the developer expected to teach them about computing? And if a developer did offer a mini-computing course, would it increase their sales or deflate them?

The Player Itself
Most customers love the Kontakt player from Native Instruments, but what gets bypassed is that every major sample developer chose to develop their own player including EastWest, SONiVOX, and VSL to list three. Of those with their own players, only EastWest has been investing the capital to develop their own sampler, PLAY PRO.

Players cannot be developed for the Corps of Astronauts alone. They must be designed and readable for those who are least functioning in L19 Bird Dogs and advancing (hopefully). Players today combine the disciplines of instrumentation, keyboard performance, and recording as illustrated by the Vienna Instruments PRO and Native Instruments’ Kontakt.

When you take all of this into account, deciding “what’s fair” isn’t as easy as it sounds because people at all levels of knowledge and experience will be reading the reviews and owning the software. Surely, a reviewer will miss something that someone regards as critical.

Even trying to describe what a library sounds like is difficult because what’s the comparison with: live players, recorded players, other libraries? And is the sound being demonstrated “out of the box” or one that the reviewer polished? And how does the sound change when reverb is added? And who’s reverb? And at what settings? Did I mention EQ’ing?

Consumer vs. Journalistic Standards
What I’ve outlined so far are the journalistic standards I have to adhere to within the context of the First Amendment. Consumers, however, are not bound by this. The results are the frequently read reviews on Amazon.com for just about anything, restaurant reviews on Yelp or Urban Spoon, and like the video that started this piece, reviews on forums, which today in music technology are the first reviews. Reviews in the traditional media magazines do carry some PR value, but the reviews trusted most of all are those from customers themselves on the forums, then web sites like Professional Orchestration and Sonic Control.TV because of their immediacy.

Unless the developer/magazine relationship is really strong, so that the product is released and reviewed the same month the magazine is released, most magazine reviews now don’t take place for at least 2-3 months post product release, and some up to a nine months to a year later, if then. By the time magazines get to the reviews, public opinion has pretty much been shaped. This is the new media reality.

Where’s The Romance?
PR-wise, sample developers are their own worst enemies because they’re usually long on tech-speak and short on the romance behind the development of their own products. David McCullough’s book of essays Brave Companions where he talked about the literary works of early aviators like Charles Lindbergh, Antoine de Saint Exupéry, and Beryl Markham brought this to mind. These bold early pilots talked about the adventure and romance of aviation. But as aviation became more technical, this genre of writing disappeared.

Compare to music technology.

Did anyone in music technology ever really stop to write about their experiences the way Lindbergh or his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh did? Certainly no one does today. Early aviators left their cockpits and wrote. By comparison, sample developers leave the studio and eat sushi. Or so it seems. What could be really great stories are reduced to sound bites in print and PR bullet points.

And I think we are the poorer for it and this contributes to the fairness factor because only through such writing do we begin to understand the drive and passion that drove a developer to invest the time, energy, effort, and sums required to create an orchestral sample library which subsequently give we writers tools that enable us to create on demand, hear our works, and earn our living as writers in ways our predecessors could only dream of in the wildest corners of their imagination.