By Laurel Thomsen | From the July-August 2023 issue of Strings Magazine

Regarded as being among the more challenging instruments to learn to play, bowed strings have represented a struggle for technology in recreating believable virtual tone and nuance. The string sounds programmed into MIDI keyboards and notation programs have traditionally only hinted at the tone of the violin or the character of a chamber orchestra—a thick wash of electronic harmonies and homogenized note transitions hardly representative of the variety and expressivity listeners love about the sound of the violin family.

Having been hired to transcribe and re-create string parts for numerous recordings over the years, I’ve found that interpreting a songwriter’s or composer’s intentions and reproducing them on my instrument is a much smoother process when I don’t have to wade through disjointed phrases or decipher a chorus of synthesized sustains.

Thankfully for composers, arrangers, songwriters, and pianists who may not play these instruments themselves or have easy access to studio musicians—or for those who want to create more accurate representations of their ideas before hitting the recording studio or the stage with live players—sample libraries, including those from classical virtuoso Joshua Bell, cellist Tina Guo, and chamber strings inspired by Pēteris Vasks’ contemporary string sound, now offer more realistic and exciting options. 

Joshua Bell with violin
Joshua Bell. Photo © Richard Ascroft

Joshua Bell Violin ($199)

Recorded on Bell’s iconic 1713 “Gibson, Huberman” Stradivari in a gorgeous studio of fully paneled hardwood at New York City’s Avatar Studios, Embertone’s Joshua Bell Violin was in development for two years with the priority to “honor Joshua Bell’s sound and approach” while creating a virtual instrument that would allow users to also be able to make their creations unique.

Featuring nearly 20,000 individual samples—including 12 legato styles; portamento speed control; a range of articulations including staccato, pizzicato, spiccato, and ricochet; a variety of attacks and releases; vibrato and nonvibrato, harmonics; trills; tremolos; and various dynamics—it offers a robust option for creators looking to add soloistic violin sounds to their library.

Notable features include the “Intuition” tab, where users can set various parameters, including the desired balance between bow changes and sustain, dynamic movement, and instability with regard to attacks, speed, and intervals. Also included is the ability to determine how vibrato versus nonvibrato and multi-stop attacks are handled. For the latter, users have four options for how to “break” a chord. Just as though it were a musician playing a real violin, the library allows users to choose the strings that the sample scripting will roll past versus sustain.


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Users will also appreciate Embertone’s extensive documentation. While including a list of possible articulations and dynamic layers seems like common sense, not all sample libraries offer this feature.

Joshua Bell Violin works with both the free Kontakt Player 5.6.8+ and paid Kontakt Full 5.4.1+. It is also compatible with many digital audio workstations (DAWs) such as Cubase, Logic, Ableton Live, Digital Performer, Reaper, and Pro Tools. It requires 8.86 GB of space and currently runs on macOS 10.10 through 10.12, and Windows 7, 8, or 10.

While Joshua Bell Violin might be overkill for someone needing sustained, legato style violin tones for background color or chamber music compositions, it’s a versatile choice for those looking to create violin melodies with personality—particularly for those wanting flexibility, a wide range of articulations, and the ability to create virtuosic sounds. 

Tina Guo playing cello
Tina Guo. Photo: P. Arroyo

Tino Guo ($399 for the complete bundle; individual components $149–$299)

Cellist Tina Guo already had extensive studio experience before undertaking a two-year development project with Cinesamples to create her extensive sample library. Her versatile playing has been featured on video games such as Diablo 3 and the Grammy-nominated soundtrack for Journey; films like Inception and Iron Man 2; TV shows like Family Guy, The Mentalist, and King of the Hill; as well as commercials for United Airlines, Mazda, and Apple.

Recorded at the famous MGM Scoring Stage at Sony Pictures Studios in Los Angeles, the Tina Guo complete bundle features acoustic cello, electric cello, and Chinese erhu performed with a range of articulations and offering various effects.

The acoustic cello and erhu samples offer a range of reverb and compression choices, while mic position sliders allow users to balance between both close and room microphone placements. For the electric cello library, besides EQ, users will find settings that simulate various effects pedals, amp sounds, distortion, and granular effects.


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Those interested in exploring loops have a range of phrasing, rhythm, arpeggiator, articulator, and drone choices, as well as ethnic music melodies. Knobs within the program will automatically transpose any loop to the desired key and tempo, and creating a custom phrase is also possible with automatic crossfades between samples and the ability to save presets. One notable feature is Cinesamples’ “Infinite Bow” option, allowing users to override the natural bow changes of a recorded sample in order to extend notes as needed.

The Tina Guo library works with Kontakt 6.7.1 and above, the free Kontakt Player, and NKS. It also works as a plugin within DAWs like Logic, Cubase, Digital Performer, Ableton Live, Pro Tools, and Cakewalk. It requires 32 GB of hard drive space during installation, but approximately only 15.5 GB after installation.

The Tina Guo complete bundle or any of its individual components are attractive choices for those who want to build out compositions based around samples, explore electric or ethnic cello sounds, and create soaring solo cello melodies. 

peteris vasks
Peteris Vasks. Photo: Reinis Hofmanis

Pēteris Vasks Strings (€549 for the complete chamber orchestra, or €54–€92 for individual string sections)

Created in collaboration with Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks and inspired by his first symphony for strings (Voices, 1991), the newly released Pēteris Vasks Strings captures the composer’s contemporary and experimental spirit with a vibrant array of color and tone possibilities. Performed by the first chair soloists and chamber sections of the celebrated Sinfonietta Riga, the samples were recorded at Vasks’ favorite venue for the performance of his compositions—St. John’s Church in Riga, Latvia.


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The library includes three legato styles and a range of unique gestures, including whispered tones and glissando, as well as trills, pizzicato, and harmonics. Bow styles include portato, marcato, staccato, spiccato, and tremolo. Dynamics were recorded in layers ranging from con sordino (with mutes), for the quieter side of the spectrum, and gradually without mutes for the louder dynamics. Users can also choose between or balance six recorded mic positions. The library works with Orchestral Tools’ free SINE Player. It understandably requires a sizable 234 GB of disk space and runs on macOS 10.13 or higher, or Windows 10.

Pēteris Vasks Strings could be a perfect choice for those wishing to create realistic chamber orchestra sounds and particularly those who are interested in exploring etheric, intimate, earthy, and modern string sounds.

Expect a Learning Curve

With any bowed-string sounds played on a keyboard, even with great samples, sounding realistic will also require the user to have knowledge of what’s physically possible to play on these instruments. Basic considerations—like how long it’s possible to hold a single bow stroke with good tone, which note combinations are possible to finger within a double- or multi-stop, the need to shift to create certain intervals, the time it takes to arrive at the target note following a shift or string crossing, and the inherent physicality and phrasing within the different bow styles—aren’t necessarily built into these programs. Assuming realism is the goal, users shouldn’t assume that these libraries will instantly fit into their workflow. 

While not nearly as lengthy a process as learning to play an actual violin, viola, or cello, for best results, the time it will take to explore the extensive options and parameters these libraries offer could be extensive. Even with the best of technology at one’s fingertips, it is important to recognize that learning to simulate these expressive instruments still takes time and technique.