|Top 5| Best Orchestral VST Plugins

Most of us don’t have the budget of The Beatles - we can’t afford to hire an entire orchestra. Heck, many of us can’t even afford to pay one or two string players.

That’s why a kick-butt plugin can be a DIY musician’s savior.

Stringed instruments are the most difficult for software developers to replicate. There are so many different variables to factor in when a violin player gently glides their bow over the strings of the instrument.

This leaves no option but to tediously record instrument samples with complex multi-microphone rigs.

Even after the software developers have the samples, there is still the challenge of programming a plugin that will intelligently play their samples.

Unfortunately, putting in this much effort into a plugin gives the developers no incentive to release it for free.

The best sounding orchestral plugins tend to cost money.

However, that’s not stopping us from also mentioning some interesting free plugins as well!

Whether you are a hobbyist or a professional producer, this article will help you find the plugin of your dreams.

Use the table of contents below to navigate to the section most suitable for you.

Premium Plugins

All-In-One

First, we’ll look at plugins that have it all -- every orchestral instrument you need in one simple piece of software.

Personal Orchestra 5

Imagine having more than 500 orchestral instruments at your disposal. Fortunately, you don’t have to imagine it, because the Garritan Personal Orchestra 5 plugin provides that.

It also includes specific articulations for specific instruments as well as different playing techniques.

You can choose from different performance spaces, reverb sounds, and basically customize the sound of the instruments.

Garritan has vastly improved the realism and authenticity of the instruments, allowing you to record an orchestra that listeners might think is an actual orchestra.

Additionally, you can’t build it one instrument at a time instead of using a predetermined, fixed-size, typical section.

Best of all, it’s an affordable package. The quality-cost balance is perfectly suited for any decent bedroom producer, yet it can also be a supplemental plugin for the music producers in high-end studios.

System requirements:

  • Windows 7 or later / Mac OS X 10.8 or later
  • Audio interface must be compatible with ASIO or DirectSound drivers
  • 4 GB RAM
  • 16 GB memory
  • Hard drive with 7200 RPM speed or more (recommended)
  • USB port needed for product installation

Film Score Companion by SONiVOX

Brass

Strings

Woodwinds

Eighty Eight Ensemble 2

Film Score Companion has five main components to it: brass, strings, woodwinds, Big Bang Cinematic Percussion, and the grand piano, Eighty Eight Ensemble.

Brass -- not only do you get the brass ensembles, you have a selection of solo instruments at your disposal. This section includes trumpets, trombones, bass trombones, French horns, and tuba, all with different techniques and methods.

Strings -- this component is great for composing and using as a background orchestra. Thanks to the individual instruments, you can build custom sections piece by piece.

Again, you have the option to use different techniques with first violins, second violins, violas, contrabasses, and cellos.

Woodwinds -- you also have a wide selection of woodwinds, which are actually the closest instrument to the human voice in frequency and tone. So they can be a nice compliment to a vocalist.

Eighty Eight Ensemble 2 -- this component is a beautiful recreation of a Steinway 9-foot CD 327 grand piano, packed into a great piece of software.

You’ll get the real grand piano sound (in 1,500 samples) that you’d expect in your home recordings. What more could you want?

Big Bang Cinematic Production -- no matter what you need - from big drums to supplemental rhythm - the BBCP has you covered.

System requirements: 

  • Mac OS X 10.8 or later / Windows 8, Windows 7 Service Pack 1 Home Premium
  • Dual Core 2 GHz, Intel Core i5 or i7
  • 2-4 GB of RAM
  • 35 GB of memory
  • Mac supported plugin formats: VST, AU, or AAX
  • Windows supported plugin formats: VST or AAX

Miroslav Philharmonik 2 by Ik Multimedia

If you want real strings played by real people, the Miroslav Philharmonik 2 plugin is the one to check out.

You can choose from legatos to pizzicatos to spicattos to staccatos and all the other “os”. Because just having a good recording of a stringed instrument isn’t enough -- it’s all about making the corresponding samples sound real and stay true to that instrument.

One reason this plugin works, for both beginners and experts, is that the legendary jazz bassist Miroslav Vitous had a hand in it.

IK Multimedia partnered with Vitous to record over 58 GB of sounds including more than 2,700 sampled instruments. 

With his vision, the instruments can stand alone or blend in with an entire orchestra.

Plus, you get some of the best post-production options, like five EQs, four dynamic processors, nine modulation effects, nine reverb and delay options, and more.

System requirements:

  • 64-bit Mac OS X 10.7 or later / Windows 7, 8, or 10 (needs ASIO driver)

  • Mac supported plugin formats: Audio Units, VST 2, VST 3, AAX

  • PC supported plugin formats: VST 2, VST 3, AAX

  • Intel Core 2 Duo, 4 GB of RAM (8 GB recommended) or AMD Athlon 64 X2 (Microsoft only)

  • 58 GB of memory

Symphonic Orchestra by EastWest

Addictive Keys

You may not have heard of Keith O. Johnson, but you should become familiar with him.

He’s an 11-time Grammy nominated recording engineer and has recorded audio for the Symphonic Orchestra plugin by EastWest.

This piece of software has won many awards, including Sound On Sound's Reader's Choice Award, three times!

The recording of these samples is unique in that Johnson used three mic positions on each instrument: close, stage, and hall.

This means you can choose which mic position you want in your recording, giving you more control and customization and less need for post-production reverb. 

Basically, you can get the true sound of a professional orchestra on your computer and in your songs.

System requirements:

  • Mac OS X 10.7 or later / Windows 7 or later (need ASIO driver)

  • Mac: Intel Core 2 Duo Processor 2.1GHz or higher (PPC not supported)

  • Windows: Intel Core 2 Duo, or AMD Dual Core 2.1GHz or higher

  • 7200 RMP or faster hard drive (needed for sample streaming)

  • 8 GB of RAM

Instant Orchestra by Garritan

The whole point of Instant Orchestra is to make arranging an orchestra super easy, sans sequencing and annoying setups. This allows anyone to orchestrate quickly and beautifully.

It only takes a minute to get the ideas in your head into audible music.

You can mix and match ensembles, including all of the same instrument or a combo of strings, horns, and woodwinds, for example.

The emphasis is in getting the instruments to flow together in perfect unison.

Plus, you get plenty of effects for post-production, like glissandi, rips, and harmonics, among many others. This plugin also provides playing techniques to make everything sound that much more authentic.

You can even find samples based on the mood you need, giving you a great starting-off point for your arrangements.

System requirements:

  • Mac OS X 10.6 through 10.11 / Microsoft Windows 7, 8 and 10, Microsoft Windows Vista, Microsoft Windows XP (SP3 required)

  • Mac Intel CPU (PowerPC not supported) / Core 2 Duo CPU or later recommended

  • 2 GB of RAM

  • 3 GB of memory

  • Hard drive speed of at least 7200 RPM

  • PC: ASIO sound card

  • Mac: Core Audio sound card


Strings

Now we get into string plugins. Focusing in on just providing killer-sounding strings means the quality you find may be better than in an all-in-one plugin.

Orchestral Companion - Strings

Recorded in the Futura Productions studios, the Orchestral Companion Strings plugin provides beautiful sounds from members of the Boston Pops and the Boston Ballet Orchestras.

They used both spot and ambient mic-ing on these musicians and their instruments.

Under the direction of SONiVOX’s Jennifer Hruska, every sample session was recorded by Emmy award-winning recording engineers Antonio Oliart and John Bono (who also won an RIAA award).

They positioned the musicians in the same way they would for an actual performance, even taking into consideration when certain musicians were absent and treating the room accordingly.

So no matter what your level of producership is, you can easily play these virtual instruments and make them sound like they’re in the room.

System requirements:

  • OS X Version 10.8.5 to 10.10 / Windows 8, Windows 7 Service Pack 1 Home Premium, Profession, or Ultimate

  • PC: Minimum Quad-core processor, Intel Core i5 or i7

  • Mac: Core 2 Duo Processor or later; Core i5 or i7

  • 2 GB of RAM

  • 15 GB of memory

  • PC compatible host application: VST or AAX (Pro Tools 11)

  • Mac compatible host application: VST, AU, or AAX (Pro Tools 11)

Session Strings by Native Instruments

If you need top-notch orchestral sounds that are ready at the touch of a button, Session Strings might be a good choice for you.

They recorded their samples at one of the best studios in Germany, using instruments from the 18th and 19th century played by some of the top musicians from the best orchestras in Europe.

With this plugin, there’s no need to spend hours upon hours tweaking little parts of your arrangements. It’s super easy to get up and running.

The sounds of these instruments don’t require post-production -- they’re at a pro-level right from the gate.

But if you do want to tweak the sounds in post-production, you have EQ and reverb available.

Plus, you have the Animator feature, which takes your orchestra and “funkifies” it. You can use it to riff on chords, adding rhythmic staccatos, spiccatos, or pizzicatos.

System requirements:

  • Mac: Intelmac (PPC not supported)

  • PC:  SSE2 (CPU supplementary instruction set)

  • 2-3 GB of RAM

  • Free Kontakt 5 Player or Kontakt 5

Hans Zimmer Strings by Spitfire Audio

With a name like Hans Zimmer associated with a plugin (or really anything music-related), you know it’s going to be one of the best.

Using 344 professional players, Zimmer conducted music that eventually became the 205,501 samples in this plugin.

It’s geared toward other composers -- those who can’t always have a full orchestra at the snap of their fingers.

It’s a big and bold piece of software for those looking to create big and bold productions.

System requirements:

  • Mac: OS X 10.10, 10.11, 10.12, 10.13

  • PC: Windows 7, 8, or 10

  • 200 GB of disk space during installation, 184 GB needed afterward

  • 16 GB of RAM

  • 2.8GHz i5 (dual core)

Century Strings Bundle by 8DIO

Addictive Keys

8Dio’s Century Strings is a realistic orchestral plugin crafted by multiple-award-winning producers Colin O’Malley and Troels Folmann.

There are three main volumes in this plugin: Traditional Ensemble Strings, Sordino (Muted) Ensemble Strings, and a bundle with both of them together.

The Traditional Ensemble Strings volume has five main ensembles:

  • First violins with six players

  • Second violins with four players

  • Violas with five players

  • Cellos with four players

  • Basses with four players

They each have matching articulations, meaning you can blend them together with ease.

The Sordino Strings Ensemble is the same but with muted instruments.

It, too, blends well within itself and with the instruments in the Traditional Ensemble.

System requirements:

  • PC or Mac

  • Kontakt 5.6 or later

  • 204 GB of memory

  • 4-8 GB of RAM

  • Compatible host applications: VST, Audio Units, AAX


Woodwinds

Woodwinds -- the instruments closest to the human voice in tone and frequency. Let’s take a look at the top woodwind plugins.

Orchestral Companion - Woodwinds by SONiVOX

This plugin is a part of the aforementioned Film Score Companion. SONiVOX is a reliable name, and thanks to John Bono, this is a reliable plugin.

If you can’t afford or don’t need the full Film Score features, the  Woodwinds section of the Orchestral Companion is the perfect option.

System requirements:

  • Mac OS X versions 10.8.5 to 10.10 / Windows 8, 7 Service Pack 1 Home Premium, Professional, or Ultimate

  • PC: quad-core processor, Intel Core i5 or i7

  • Mac: Core 2 Duo Processor or later; Core i5 or i7

  • 2-4 GB of RAM

  • 15 GB of memory

  • PC compatible host applications: VST or AAX

  • Mac compatible host applications:  VST, AU, or AAX

CAGE Woodwinds by 8DIO

Some say CAGE is the most comprehensive orchestral plugin.

The Custom Aleatoric Group Effects (CAGE) was put together by Folmann and O’Malley, the same award-winning producers who produced the Century Strings Bundle from 8Dio.

The woodwinds volume includes nine microphone positions for a wide range of sound options.

Under the umbrella of those nine positions, there are two main groups: Ensemble and Divisi. So you’ve got options, to say the least.

The woodwinds sections also have over 380 effects, making it almost impossible to not find the effect you need.

System requirements:

  • Kontakt 5.5 or later (not compatible with Free Kontakt Player)

  • 14 GB of memory

  • 4 GB of RAM

  • 2.4GZ+ for PC / 2.6Ghz for Mac

Symphony Series Woodwind by Native Instruments

Native Instruments is a trusted name, so you know their Symphony Series Woodwind plugin is a solid piece of software.

It provides 400 different articulations, four different mic mixes, and they recorded it at Montclair Presbyterian Church in Oakland, California. So you get a full, real orchestra sound.

Plus, you get plenty of effects to help your song reach pro-level quality, like true legato, EQ, reverb, compression, and filter.

System requirements:

  • Kontakt 5 Player or Kontakt 5 (5.6.8 or higher)

  • 54 GB of memory

  • Intel i5 processor

Leave a Comment

10 comments

  1. What about East/West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra & Hollywood orchestra? In terms of quality, they are overboard, both contain every instrument and every articulation you would ever need. I disagree with the Garittan products, as they are overpriced for what you got. +1 on Albion.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions Tom:) I’ve actually been meaning to add Hollywood Orchestra now that I have more experience with it. I’ve heard good things about East/West, but haven’t got around to trying it yet. Will do!

      I surprisingly like Garritan. Maybe those plugins aren’t for everyone, but depending on you purposes and how you use the plugins, they can be great.

  2. Well, there are still free options out there, obviously you can’t get that level of quality but being free and lightweight, Sonatina soundfont is a great choice if you are broke, like I am :)

    1. Great recommendation, Juan! I couldn’t tell if it is available for both Mac and PC. Can you tell?

      The only thing that worries me is that it looks like the developers lost interest in it. The forum page is down and it appears a couple of the download links are broken (although most of the links do work).

      1. Well, Sonatina is a kind of openSource SoundFont, compiled from various sources by Mattias Westlund, as I understand, so it’s alive in the sense that everyone can contribute to it but I think Mattias himself have stopped working on it.

        It would be cool to make a big opensource project with it, maybe even a Kickstarter to develop it further and programing its own sampler VSTi to make an awesome free orchestral plugin though.

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