If you are just starting out in your search for a full orchestral virtual instrument library or are just looking for some options to explore a full orchestra without spending a lot of money, you have probably come across the BBC Symphony Orchestra Discover library from Spitfire Audio. Spitfire Audio has been putting together professional sample libraries for artists since 2007 and is a well-known name in the virtual instrument world. When this library was initially released, it was offered for $49 or for free with a two-week wait period if you filled out a questionnaire as a way to make the library available to financially limited individuals. Now, you can download it for free immediately on their website here https://www.spitfireaudio.com/bbc-symphony-orchestra-discover/
Overview Of The BBC Symphony Orchestra Discover Library
The BBC Symphony Orchestra Discover library is a downsized version of Spitfire’s full BBC Symphony Orchestra library, which is currently available on their website for $449. The library provides a full orchestra with strings, brass, woodwinds, and various percussion instruments. The samples are distributed over 33 instruments and 47 different techniques. The library itself takes up just 200Mb.
Now your first thought may be, if this is free it must be low quality. But Spitfire is an established brand and their goal with this library was to make a decent orchestral library available to everybody, regardless of their budget. For a free library, the quality is very good, and it is a great place for any artist to start arranging multiple orchestral instruments.
The library uses Spitfire’s dedicated plugin, and when you open it in your DAW it should look like this.
The interface is very straightforward and easy to navigate. It depicts the different orchestra sections as they might appear in a real orchestra on a stage, which is a great educational and visual aid if you are attempting to spatially mix the instruments realistically. In addition, hovering over a section will give you information about the instrument in the context of the orchestra and how many of each instrument are in the section. To switch between different instrument samples, simply click on the appropriate colored orchestra section. The string sections are green, the woodwind sections are blue, the brass sections are red, and the percussion sections are blue. You can also switch between instruments by selecting from the drop-down menu at the top of the window.
The two vertical sliders on the left allow you to adjust the expression and dynamics of the sample, and the circular slider allows you to adjust the reverb level. The various articulations available for the instrument are shown on the staves on the right. The keyboard at the bottom of the interface highlights the pitches in the available range for the instrument selected.
There are five strings sections: first and second violins, violas, cellos, and basses. All of the instruments except the bass include four techniques: long, spiccato, pizzicato, and tremolo. Tremolo is the only technique not available for the bass.
The first violins has a lovely orchestral violin sound and is just slightly brighter in tone than the second violins. They have bright spiccato and the pizzicato is very clear.
The violas have a lower full tone that blend seamlessly with the violins.
The celli (plural of cello) have a beautiful rich tone that captures the body of the cello sound surprisingly well for a free library.
The basses have a slightly growly sound but still manage to sing in the mid-range. Their pizzicato is also delightfully clear and booming.
Overall, the strings sound great and not overly synth-like at all, which is usually the concern with a free string library. These virtual strings alone are a good reason to download the library.
The brass sections include horns, trumpets, trombones, bass trombones, and tubas. They all include long and staccatissimo techniques.
The horns are arguably one of the best instruments in the library. They can sing out beautifully over the orchestra or blend nicely with the rest of the brass. The dynamic range, while limited, allows you to adjust how aggressive or soft the tone is.
The trumpets are clear and bright, and don’t sound tin-like at all. While they are also limited in dynamic range, there is some room to adjust, and the quality is still very good.
The bass and tenor trombones have a distinctly different timbre from the trumpets and also have a quality sound to fill brass arrangements. The techniques here may feel limited especially for trombone, but the sample quality is very good for the what is available.
The final brass instrument, the tuba, has a deep, low brass sound to ‘anchor the harmony’ as noted. The dynamic quality is definitely limited, as the tone doesn’t change much from piano to forte, but the quality of the instrument at a mid-range dynamic is good and still sounds quite filled out.
There are five woodwind sections: piccolo, flutes, clarinets, oboes, and bassoons. They all include long and staccatissimo techniques.
The piccolo has potential to have a grating, unpleasant sound when sampled. But this piccolo sample is bright and clear all the way to the top of its range and plays through trills and runs beautifully.
The flutes have a lovely round tone with a subtle vibrato on each pitch. They are somewhat limited in their expression and may sound a bit robotic when used for long notes but are still great for melodies and blending into the woodwinds.
The clarinets are warm and relatively expressive for the quality, though you may find them lacking if you are looking for a very ‘human’ sound. But the vibrato develops nicely through the sample and the notes connect well to each other for lilting melodies.
The oboes also have a good sound quality, and don’t sound overly artificial. Again, if you are aware of the true expressive range of the instrument you may find them underwhelming, but they are still very decent and avoid a cringy, metallic tone.
The bassoons have a full, rich tone through the entirety of their range. They blend will with the other woodwinds and will anchor your woodwinds arrangements.
There are three percussion sections, each with a variety of different instruments within them: harp and celeste, orchestral percussion, and tuned percussion. Instead of switching between techniques, you are given the option to switch between instruments of a section in the interface.
The harp in the library is beautifully resonant and sparkles over the orchestra. The celeste has a gorgeous bright tone and is great for accentuating melodies or adding a sense of mystery. It also has a very nice natural reverb which you can adjust.
The orchestra percussion includes timpanis and a variety of orchestral percussion such as various cymbals, woodblocks, triangle, cowbell etc. The timpanis are a standout in the percussion section, as they have a fantastic resonant booming sound that is very good for a free library. They are great for adding intensity and body to your orchestral arrangement.
Finally, the tune percussion includes four instruments: tubular bells, marimba, xylophone, and glockenspiel. The tubular bells sound like big church bells and are reminiscent of Christmas carols or medieval fantasy. The marimba and xylophone are bright and clear, and the glockenspiel has a gorgeous glistening tone.
Pros and Cons
The pros of this library:
- It is completely free
- It provides an entire orchestra of virtual instruments
- The sample quality is very decent
- It is a relatively small library and will be light on your CPU
The cons of this library:
- The expression of some of the instruments is limited especially for some of the woodwinds and brass
- There is only one round robin, or sample round, for each instrument, so it won’t sound as varied with each iteration of the sound
- Techniques and dynamics are very limited
Overall, this is a fantastic beginner library for someone who is looking to start arranging for orchestra or even just string parts for a song. Because of the small size it won’t take up too much space and will be easy to insert into projects.
While this library definitely has limitations, it is important to understand the value that is being provided for free. If you are a strings or brass player, you may be more apprehensive of how limited the techniques and dynamics are. But in general, the quality is better than almost any other free library at this point, especially one as comprehensive as this one. If you are truly in need of a more expansive range of options for each instrument, there are certainly libraries that can provide this for a price, such as Spitfire’s full BBC Symphony Orchestra. This library is merely meant to provide a quality option for people who don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for a full orchestral sample library, and it fills that purpose with flying colors.