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Make the Most of your Orchestral Samples

A full-size symphony orchestra is a magnificent sounding ensemble. It has a dynamic range from whisper-soft to rock-and-roll roaring. And the timbres that can be produced by various combinations of instruments are virtually endless.

That’s why, until about a decade ago, the task of accurately sampling orchestral sounds seemed to be out of the reach of electronic musicians. There were too many timbres, too many articulations – too many variables to capture. But with the appearance of GigaSampler (and following it, Kontakt, Halion, EXS24 and MachFive, to name a few), the possibility of amassing a fairly thorough orchestral sample collection became an attainable goal.

So today’s tech tip is, if you have a Miroslav Vitous or Garritan or EastWest or Vienna Symphonic Library sample set, USE it! Don’t get locked into a select few “sweeping strings” or “soaring brass” instruments that can ultimately become musically uninteresting through overuse.

To get you started in your search for more sonic possibilities from your sample set, let’s consider muted instruments. Almost all libraries include some mute programs; the big ones have entire sections of muted strings and brass, with a variety of articulations.

Mutes go far beyond the often-disappointing sound of General MIDI instrument 60, “Mute Trumpet,” which is an approximation of a straight mute. A muted string section, with its attenuated upper harmonics, can fit under a solo voice or instrument without covering it up. For a contemporary classical example of muted strings, find a copy of Bartok’s 1940 Concerto for Orchestra. In the second movement you’ll hear a fascinating combination of muted strings playing tremolos, under 2 muted trumpets.

Mutes are a relatively new addition to the orchestral palette (at least given the 500-year history of the ensemble). But as early as 1841 composer/orchestrator Hector Berlioz scored Weber’s Invitation to the Dance (originally composed for piano) with broad-but-lively muted cellos. Even Mozart tried this timbre; his Concerto in G (K216, to those of you who follow such things) employed a rare muted solo violin.

As for brass, the term “mute” doesn’t really describe what these sounds can do. They are often piercing and nasal – usually the result of a straight or Harmon mute – and can actually cut through dense arrangements more easily than open instruments. Rent a copy of the recent movie “House on Haunted Hill” and listen to film composer and orchestrator Don Davis use clusters of muted brass to evoke moments of shock and fear.

Film composers are constantly searching for new sound combinations to use in their scores. It’s possible you paid a small fortune to acquire your orchestral sample library; you owe it to yourself to listen to every available instrument and articulation. It will definitely pay off for you musically and perhaps financially!

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