From the 60s through the 80s, many iconic rock and pop songs were produced with the help of so-called “string machines”. These specialized synthesizers were sort of a bridge between vintage electronic organs and the tape-based mellotrons, and they were very convincing at reproducing string beds and backing harmonies. Being cheaper than using real section players, these string machines logically left their sonic fingerprint in countless productions from that era.
While the original synth models have been discontinued over the years, EastWest decided a few months ago to release their own virtual rendition: String Machine. Including samples from famous hardware models from the Roland Jupiter 6 to the ARP Solina, String Machine goes beyond a simple emulation by also including various orchestral samples. to create unique musical layers.
Let us take a look at String Machine and dive deep into its features to see which unique musical layers we can create with it!
Designed by the EastWest founders Nick Phoenix and Doug Rogers as a side project during the development of their award-winning Forbidden Planet library, String Machine combines the force of a multi-sampled string machine and a full orchestra. These samples come from the Oberheim OBX, the ARP Solina, the Roland RS-505 and Jupiter 6. It also includes samples of modern orchestral strings, brass, woodwinds and choir/vocals.
String Machine is hosted in EastWest’s own very efficient OPUS engine that was introduced with the reworked Hollywood Orchestra libraries in 2021. The installation and setup is managed through iLok and the EastWest installation center software. After installation, the library requires just over 12 GB of hard drive space.
String Machine’s main interface is very reminiscent of classic vintage hardware synths. The graphics are of good quality and the top VU meters are a nice touch to keep track of the instrument levels. All controls are nicely accessible on one screen.
The top of the interface holds the volume knob, spatial and reverb controls, along with an EQ filter.
The centerpiece of the GUI is dedicated to the different instrument families. EastWest decided to assign a different colour for each of the 4 instrument types: red for the string machines, green for the strings, teal for woodwinds & brass, and orange for choir/vocals. The same colors are also used for their corresponding ADSR controls and on the keyboard display, which feels nicely coherent.
The instruments are activated by using the switches aligned with the modwheel. Each instrument also has an “Alt” version, which corresponds to another set of samples, for more variety. Chorus and ensemble chorus effects are also available for each instrument individually, which is perfectly in line with the vintage sound of the analog synth models.
One small caveat in the ergonomics is a group of white instrument switches. EastWest decided to further divide their instrument groups by using those, but I personally found it a bit confusing at first, as it breaks with the nice color scheme established previously. Maybe a colored outline around the switches would have been a better choice.
A mix page is also accessible through the backend of the OPUS engine. This mix page gives access to more control options that allow finetunig of the samples, as we will see in the next chapter.
String Machines comes with 17 sound presets. While it seems like only a small collection, these presets are very effective in showing users different sound characteristics achievable by the library, and provide great starting points when looking for inspiration. Some of my favorite presets are “Deity”, “Fat Tire Space Rider” and “Winds of Change”, all displaying a nice and broad sound spectrum.
The synth sounds and orchestral samples are of very good quality and carry a good amount of low-end frequencies, which is particularly important in modern media productions. The “Alt” versions of the samples are notably different from the main ones, and represent a welcome addition. For strings and woodwinds samples, the alternative samples are non-vibrato versions of the original sound.
One great unique feature for a library of this type is that EastWest captured multiple dynamic layers for each sound. Contrary to traditional string machines, which could only sound dynamic through volume changes, in String Machines, the modwheel allows us to make use of several dynamic layers. This, along with the EQ filter, presents us with emotional and dramatic control of our sounds. The dynamics come in particularly handy when playing chords or when crafting a sound in combination with the included orchestral samples.
The chorus effects are modeled after both the classic Solina and the Roland chorus sections. They can widen and beef up the sound significantly and are a big part of what made these vintage analog synths so special and authentic. Through the mix page, the ensemble chorus is switchable between either a Solina or a Roland VP-330 model, or a “modern” setting. This modern setting will work best when using String Machine for modern media music tracks, as it allows for a gentler, more subtle effect.
EastWest’s new String Machine is a great rendition of some of the most beloved vintage synths. The pristine yet authentic samples offer a great sonic palette that is useful to create tracks in various genres from pop and synthwave to hip-hop and rock. Moreover, the orchestral samples along with the multi dynamics are a great and unique added value and make the synth sounds come alive.
String Machine is also part of EastWest’s famous Composer Cloud+ subscription, adding significant value for existing customers. At its $299 regular retail price however, the library feels a bit expensive in comparison to other similar products. At the time of writing this review though, String Machines is offered at an introductory price of $199.
Whether or not String Machine will be suited for you will mostly depend on your existing sound palette and what you need in your particular style of music. String Machine is probably too specialized to work as your first all-round software synthesizer but for composers who already own workhorse synths and are looking for retro sounds with a modern twist, this library can be a great fit, especially if one values sound quality over quantity.