As I continue researching various aspects of the modern composer's tool kit, knowing the budgetary restraints of early adopters of the technology, I thought I might take a closer look at the basic software DAWs (digital audio workstations) and their bundled sounds. The main contenders in this area are Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools, the less seen Performer, and the more recently popular Studio One. If you are looking at Ableton Live or Bitwig Studio as more traditional compositional platforms, then you're in the wrong place - these are both designed to trigger and beat-match audio loops, and if you don't use them for that purpose, then you are wasting their main features.
All of the DAWs mentioned above come bundled with plug-ins, many of which are designed to produce usable sounds, whether in the form of synthesised tones or as samples taken from real instruments. We are more interested in these sample playing devices, for the sole purpose of emulating the instruments required in our compositions, so these are the target for this piece.
Steinberg's Cubase is bundled with Halion Sonic SE, which is a cut-down version (3GB of samples) of the full VST plug-in. It has a comprehensive selection of sounds, like all of these bundles, not really specialising in any one genre. The selection of orchestral sounds is adequate, but the solo instruments need some extra processing to get some realism out of them. You may need to consider updating to the full version to have a better selection available.
Apple's Logic (which uses the Audio Unit plug-in format) is bundled with a sampler called EXS24, which has quite a good selection of usable sounds, and a good number of free downloadable instruments, as well.
Avid's Pro Tools (which uses the AAX format) uses Xpand2 as it's main offering, but also has the Structure Free sampler. This basic sound set doesn't allow for too much quality in the small ensemble area, being slightly better for emulating larger groups. The full version, Structure 2 features 37GB of samples and is USD$150. Pro Tools has an excellent grand piano plug-in, well worth a play.
Presonus Studio One (which can host both VST and Audio Unit plug-ins) is bundled with Presence XT, and the Professional version has 14GB of sounds. I have had some very pleasing results with the orchestral sounds here.
If you decide to go down the path of building your own sample library, here are some interesting links to consider. The first suggestion would be to download the free Native Instruments Kontakt Player Free - this allows you to purchase any instrument sets from their library to suit your needs.
These next two packages are a great (and economical) way to get started: