Every film score has a unique sound world, individual to the composer and theme. From the epic, otherworldly sounds of Hans Zimmer to the magical and heroic music of John Williams, both have created captivating sonic worlds that will remain timeless. For aspiring composers using Ableton who need recommendations on their next plug-in purchase, here are the top 7 plug-ins we recommend for film scoring in Ableton Live 11.
What is the Importance of Plug-ins?
Plug-ins are extensions of computer software that add new functionality to a host program, in this case, Ableton. Plug-ins could be in the form of audio effects, sample libraries, and instruments. In film scoring, many composers use orchestral libraries if they don’t have access to a live orchestra.
Plug-ins come in various shapes and sizes. Some are entirely free, and some are more upmarket. Companies like Spitfire Audio have exceptional sample libraries that are more upmarket than most others, but the price tag matches the incredible and versatile quality.
Ableton themselves have packs available to purchase on their website, including some free ones. While these aren’t entirely orchestral-focused plug-ins, they offer a wide range of packs with an eclectic range of effects and instruments for unique musical and atmospheric soundscapes.
1. Spitfire – LABS
LABS by Spitfire is a series of instruments that are entirely free to use. Yes, it’s free! Kicking off this list with a very popular and well-renowned sound library, LABS creates a bridge for those looking to start in the film composing world without breaking the bank.
With instruments including Soft Piano, Organic Textures, Tape Orchestra and Synth Pads, LABS offers a vast range of instruments and textures that are super easy to navigate. With LABS, you have control over effects such as reverb, ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release), gain and expression. Furthermore, LABS is highly versatile and can generate many moods and musical ideas that suit your individual needs.
To use LABS, all that is required is to download the Spitfire Audio App, which is also free and all of your downloaded packs, plus any remaining LABS packs you’d like to download, will be homed here. It is a brilliant plug-in to get started with, and it being completely free makes it even better!
2. Spitfire – Hans Zimmer Collection
Keeping with Spitfire, the great Hans Zimmer has his very own collection that many creatives talk highly of. Specifically, looking at his Strings Collection, the pure richness in sound is so realistic and enthralling. With plenty of playing techniques such as sul ponticello, flautando, pizzicato and other cinematic sound effects, Hans Zimmer Strings is one of the best string sample libraries available. With an outstanding 344 recorded players and up to 60 players for each section, the sound is not only impressive. The different microphone signals make this plug-in stand out, offering a much more immersive composing experience. Additionally, Zimmer has other collections available, including Percussion, Piano, and Drums, which are just as epic!
Due to the incredible and iconic Zimmer sound, his collection does come with one hefty price tag of $799. If you have the funds to spend, this is a highly recommended product for those looking for an orchestral experience that is so close to real life. Or if you are getting more gigs in film scoring, this would be a significant upgrade.
3. Spectrasonics – Omnisphere
For the composers who are heavily into their synthesizers, Omnisphere by Spectrasonics will certainly get those creative juices flowing. An instrument with remarkable power and versatility, Omnisphere is regarded as one of the leading synthesizers in music production. What makes Omnisphere so extraordinary is its Hardware Synth Integration. This is a super innovative feature for composers into hardware synthesizers such as the Roland Juno – 106, Korg Monologue and the Moog Sub 37 and many more. It’s as if you are creating with these iconic synths at your fingertips!
With a sound library of over 14,000 sounds, Omnisphere has a high-fidelity quality that features an array of blockbuster films. It sounds from iconic synthesizers and orchestral to noise soundscapes and even voices; there’s so much to choose from! This industry-leading plug-in also has 58 Effects Units, the ability to import your sound sources within the software, and access to Wavetable synthesis and Granular synthesis. Omnisphere is known for its large number of presets within its patch browser, which is efficiently categorized for a more user-friendly experience. With that, it comes with four oscillators, which can be altered to your liking, as well as adjusting the effects, modulations, arpeggiator and more.
While the price is relatively high for a synth, with the multitude of features, for $499, the ornate quality and the hardware integration that comes with it, it is an absolute must in your plug-ins library.
4. UVI Meteor
Besides musical plug-ins that generate harmonic material within the cinematic soundscape, let’s not forget the thrilling sound effects. From sonic booms to dramatic swells, UVI Meteor has you covered.
Covering a multitude of sounds, including field recordings, foley, synth scape, glitch textures, and specifically designed orchestral sessions, UVI Meteor satisfies a wide variety of moods, themes and characters. The ability to audition sounds, set a randomizer to uncover more sounds, and modulate and adjust any sound effects to your tastes, ensure a smoother workflow. Furthermore, UVI Meteor has an efficient, user-friendly interface allowing for a more free-flowing creative journey.
The structure behind UVI MEteor is undoubtedly unique, with a 7-track sampler divided into 2 sections: 3 layers to rise sounds and 4 layers for impacts. All tracks have controls for parameters such as volume, pan, solo, effects sends and specific controls for specific effects. Furthermore, there are controls for velocity curves, modulation, impact time and distortion, and a granular mode to top it off.
Coming at $149, it’s a pretty reasonable price tag for what it is offering. The quality is excellent; it’s a must on your wishlist.
5. Native Instruments: Ashlight
Native Instruments have an abundance of plug-ins available to Ableton Users and are one of the most popular libraries amongst music producers and composers. For those looking for dark tones and deep textures, Ashlight houses all those immersive and atmospheric textures, from pulsating basses to evocative keys. In comparison to its other sibling plug-ins Straylight and Farlight, Ashlight provides sounds for high tensity horror soundscapes.
The engine is built to control the sounds and modulations in real time over pre-assigned macros. This allows the composition process to be more experimental and find unexpected textures you may not find easily. The plug-in has two audio layers: granular and multi/one-shot samples. With more than 260 grain samples, Ashlight’s individuality lies within its granular and haunting character. You can control the grain parameters. Furthermore, it has an effects layer with 4 customizable options that can be adjusted and re-ordered for your desired needs.
The sample layer has numerous recordings of multi-samples and atmospheric one-shots combined with the granulator samples that complement each other to achieve eccentric atmospheres. Ashlight has several presets for you, all categorized for an easy browsing experience.
The price for Ashlight stands at £179, and to use Ashlight, you will need to install a free Kontakt Player. This is compatible with Ableton and is one impressive plug-in that instantly elevates your film scoring.
6. UJAM – STRIIINGS (Symphonic Elements)
UJAM have created a Symphonic Elements collection which includes string, brass and drums plug-ins. The STRIIIINGS plug-in is a popular and impressive plug-in to have for film scoring due to not only the quality but the reasonable price it’s at. This is a perfect alternative for those who want something similar to the Spitfire Hans Zimmer library but lack the funds. In fact, one of UJAM’s co-founders is none other than Hans Zimmer himself! This sample library was produced and recorded in his Control Studios, so you are guaranteed a world-class sound.
Features within this plug-in include 60 playing styles and 200+ sound designer presets. This is a great tool for those who may struggle to generate material themselves; with the help of having many presets available, this certainly can inspire you along the way.
The STRIIIINGS plug-in is divided into high strings (violins and violas) and low strings (cellos and double basses), which can be combined. The effects parameters are well-designed and are super easy to use. The Character FX is an EQ control, for example, if you wanted to boost or cut away certain frequency ranges. Motion FX provides movement to your sound, with options of auto-panning the strings, having a gate effect and granular. STRIIIINGS also have a crossfade function which can be dialled in for a seamless blend. And finally, a Finisher multi-effect with different modes to enhance and touch up your final sound.
The result of this plug-in sounds impeccable for the price of £142. For what it’s worth, it’s a great plug-in for beginners and even experienced composers.
7. Drone Lab – Ableton
Ableton has several packs available that are well-integrated within the software. One in particular that works great for any film composer looking for drones, Drone Lab, is a beauty in this category.
With a similar vibe to Ashlight, Drone Lab houses a plethora of evolving tones and textures, generative sounds, and multi-sampled instruments for creating a dark and dense sound suitable for film scoring. This pack provides a poignant and distinctive nature that can elevate your compositions. While most packs available are better suited for other means of music production, Drone Lab is versatile and well-suited for film scoring and other compositional needs.
Inside Drone Lab, you have customizable Audio Effects racks that can be applied to audio/midi tracks that have already been dialled in. Examples of racks included are Generative, Feedback and Resonance, and Distortion & Detuning, each with haunting yet captivating characteristics. Furthermore, Drone Lab has a set of instruments, such as a Harmonic Drone Generator, a variety of Pads, and Evolving Bass.
Additionally, it has MIDI clips which you can use and alter to your liking. This is great for those needing some extra inspiration in their material. Lastly, several one-shot samples can be used for sound effects within your score. As a bonus, Drone Lab offers improvisation sets, which are not suitable for film scoring but are an option for those interested in doing live performances.
Drone Lab is available for free if you have Ableton Suite. However, if you only have the Standard or Lite, Drone Lab costs only £39. You get so many exciting textures at your fingertips for this price, making it perfect for those who want darker and more experimental-sounding scores.
Ableton Packs and Third-Party Plug-ins
Having Ableton opens up a wide range of Packs, all fully integrated within the system. The difference from the other third-party plug-ins is that it all part of one ecosystem. Still, it’s prevalent for producers to expand to other companies like Spitfire Audio, Native Instruments and many more. If you want to learn more about Ableton, sticking to their packs is a great start. However, there is much more scope for experimentation, professional sound and better control units within other plug-ins. They are just as accessible, and if you are looking for something more professional, like Spitfire’s library, then venturing outside the Ableton ecosystem is a must for any music producer and composer.
For more on Abelton, check out these articles
Creating Immersive Film Soundscapes in Ableton Live 11