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Realistic Orchestral Sequences Part 2

Continuing our discussion of creating realistic orchestral sequences, this section touches upon the sound palette and how we use it. Here is where find that non-traditional approaches to orchestration combined with a traditional approach modern instruments help us to create realistic orchestral mock-ups.

Sample Palette
Using strings as our primary focus, let’s talk about the sound samples themselves and the point where we abandon traditional orchestral guidelines:

While there are now sample libraries and Orchestral plug-ins that have some startlingly realistic sounds, the way you approach and play your library is part of the secret to sequencing real-sounding renditions of orchestral scores. Even if you do have the most realistic sounding samples, remember that they are samples, and as such, will not respond in exactly the same manner as the instrument itself does.

It helps to think of each sample as one idea of a string sound. From sampler to sampler, or sample to sample, one sample library’s marcato strings will sound differently from another, but somehow both sound “right” What’s “wrong” is the fact that the sample’s overtones are fixed for each note, as well as the physical space they occupy. Also, a sampled sound doesn’t get the full picture of the sound. By combining or laying different string samples, you come closer to a “real” sounding instrument or section.

The Virtual Orchestra
The first step in creating a realistic orchestral performance begins with the way your sound palette is organized. Treat your samples and or samplers like a virtual orchestra. Dedicate each sampler to its own instrument type or timbre. For example, one sampler will be your string section. Even if you use more than one sampler for strings, make sure they are all loaded with the same basic palette – short stings, marcato strings, muted strings, tremolo strings and so on. If you are working with software synths, the idea is the same. In a software sampler like GigaStudio, the instrument window has four parts, each with its own window consisting of 16 MIDI channels to assign instruments to. Dedicate each part as an orchestral section. E.g. part 1 for strings, part 2 for woodwinds, part 3 for brass, and part 4 for percussion. With sample libraries such as the Garritan strings, strings are separated into what are referred to as ‘Desks’; 1st violins, 2nd violins, 1st viola, and etc. In GigaStudio, you can organize your string samples in this sequence. When you compose, your soprano violin parts will be assigned to the 1st violins, and inner voices to second violin and violas as the normal rules of orchestration would dictate. This same concept should apply to other sections even if the samples are not organized in that fashion. For example, if you are writing for woodwinds, in a passage with two flutes and two clarinets, use a different sample for each. Combining the various samples adds a level of realism. For brass, it will help in performance to set up some programs that use the mod wheel to control the filter. By “opening up” the filter as you sustain a note, the changing character of the sound will also contribute to realism.

Layering Samples
We spoke in an earlier segment of combining different samples to create realism; For example, double a high string part with similar sounding samples. For passages where strings are playing chord progressions, double an open string ensemble sample with a muted string ensemble. This is purely subjective, but to my ear, the low frequency characteristics of the muted strings, adds a much nicer quality to the overall sound. I’ve also had great success doubling the “Bowed Strings” patch of the Wavestation A/D to a more gritty sounding string ensemble sample for body and depth without losing the more guttural sound of the bow being pulled across strings.

If you’re a guitar player, try doubling a string part with a distorted guitar, and mix the guitar so that it doesn’t overpower the strings. This adds the immediacy of performance as well as sonic depth, variation and excitement. The guitar helps to overcome the boring sameness of the string attacks and sustains. I’ve also found that anytime you can add a real acoustic sound to a digital sample for support, without overpowering it, you add a level of realism. These are not things you would do with a real orchestra, but this part of the secret to making orchestral sequences sound real.

One final reminder about layering: When you double a part don’t copy and paste. Perform everything live. Copy and paste can cause phasing problems and it adds another layer of realism to have another live performance.

Disable Reverb
To help samples with disparate ambiences fit into the same sonic space, always turn off the reverb in all of your samplers and synths. Process them through hall and room reverbs from the same unit (or units.) A convolution reverb plug-in like Altiverb, or Waves IR-1 set up on a bus will give you a close approximation of a live concert hall.

The Right Sound
If you don’t have a good sample of a solo instrument or section, don’t write parts for that sound. Write the part for a better sound. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often that mistake is made. Avoid the pitfall of thinking that just because you have a sound, you must use it, and more importantly, don’t believe that by virtue of combining orchestral colors, you are achieving something musical. A bad sample will draw attention to itself, thereby undermining any reality you have going in your sequence.

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