home | recordings | compositions | press | services | store | instruction | articles | studio | biography | credits | links

The Unreal Orchestra

by Jerry Gerber and Michael Prager

Software instruments and ultra-realistic sample libraries are more than the rage: Theyíve revolutionized how symphonic music is produced and delivered. Hereís a look at how top pros make the most of their virtual symphonies

Whether comprised of racks of MIDI modules, stacks of samplers, or gigabytes of software instruments, virtual orchestras are an essential element of every composerís arsenal. With mind-boggling frequency, technological advances foster new sample libraries that offer ever-increasing control of expression and  realism. You read about these in the pages of Keyboard every month: the Vienna Symphonic Library, Quantum Leapís Symphonic Orchestra, the Garritan Personal Orchestra, and other new virtual instruments let composers get much closer to the ideal of a highly expressive digital orchestra. They also make it easier to produce great-sounding orchestral tracks in a phenomenally short amount of time. As you might imagine, this comes in really handy in the world of film and TV music, where it seems nanoseconds can make the difference between a successful project and a missed deadline.

As fantastic as these new tools are, ultra-realistic orchestral tracks donít just flow out the minute you install them. And even if they did, thereís a big difference between a track that sounds like a real orchestra and a cue that does its job in a film. There are many paths you can take to learn how to get the most from your digital orchestra and hone your chops at creating music for picture, but all of them combine the knowledge of traditional instruments and orchestration with a mastery of the technological resources available to you. Weíre here to help you figure out how to do it. Weíve interviewed several highly successful composers and orchestrators who make extensive use of virtual instruments.

Christopher Young is at the top of his game these days. Best known for forays into the macabre with the haunting themes for Hellraiser and The Gift, he has also covered other genres with his scores for The Hurricane, The Core, and Swordfish. Assisted by tech guru Jonathan Price, Chris is hard at work on his newest scoring project, the upcoming prequel to The Exorcist.

Based in Northridge, California, Neal Acree is climbing the steps of film composing success with work that includes music for the TNT series Witchblade and cable feature films such as Deadly Swarm and Project VIPER.

Originally from the United Kingdom, Jane Cornish moved to Los Angeles in search of new challenges in film scoring, and has found them in a big way. Her current projects include composing music for a series of ESPN biographies, as well as a steady flow of work from Ant Farm, one of busiest movie-trailer music companies around.

Whether the score is orchestral in nature or not, the process begins with the same first step: watching the movie itself. This can sometimes include a temp score, which is a compilation of music that the director and music editor select to give the composer an idea of direction in which he or she would like to see the music go. In Christopher Youngís case, his score to The Fly II served as the temp score to Jennifer 8, which subsequently resulted in his getting that gig, too. "The director heard my score and really wanted to hire me," he says. "But the studio wasnít keen on it, as I wasnít a big name. They ended up hiring someone else to do the score, but they didnít like it and threw it out. Then I came on board to replace that score.

"Before starting the scoring process, I like to see the film as many times as I can. That way, Iíll have a better idea of what Iím trying to accomplish, and I can get a feel for where I think where the music should and shouldnít be. Then I begin the process of writing the score out by hand on manuscript paper."

Like Young, Cornish is a pencil-and-paper composer, too. "I donít write at a keyboard when Iím working out themes," she says. "I go somewhere very quiet and compose the main themes sitting in a comfy chair, working things out completely in my head, and sketching the ideas out on manuscript paper, but fully orchestrated. I donít go to a keyboard or turn on any equipment until Iíve already composed the music. Then I need to rework the music to fit the picture precisely. I sync my sequencer to picture, make a note of where the hit points are and where changes should take place, then sequence the music."

In Acreeís case, his approach involves a little emotion and being close to his keyboard. "The first step is watching the film and reacting to it as an audience member rather than a filmmaker," he says. "I take those emotions or ideas I get while watching and get to a keyboard as fast as I can to sequence stuff. Iíll lay down as many thematic ideas as I can over the following two or three days. Once I start to get an idea that will work as a main theme, Iíll develop that and play it for the director."

The next step is the spotting session, which involves the composer and director getting together to watch the film to decide where the music should be and what kind of emotion is required. Once thatís done and some music is written or at least sketched out, itís time to create a mock-up of the score, which involves sequencing the score to make it sound as close to the real thing as possible. This is where a little tech savvy and a solid grounding in traditional orchestration comes in handy.

New Tools of the Trade

Jonathan Price, a film composer himself in addition to being Youngís tech, describes how they approach the mock-up process. "MOTU Digital Performer (still under OS 9) is the hub of his studio," he says. "It controls the MIDI, audio, and video. For mock-ups, we find our Gigastudio system running the Vienna Symphonic Library indispensable. For synth and sound design, Native Instruments Reaktor, Absynth, and Kontakt, as well as Spectrasonics Atmosphere, get used constantly.

"After Chris composes a cue in the upstairs studio, he photocopies the sketch and sends it downstairs to me with a tempo map. Iíll mock it up with the Vienna Library. If thereís a synth in the cue, Iíll usually start with a patch from Absynth, Dícota, or Atmosphere and edit it until it sounds like something Chris would like. If it calls for designing a sound from the ground up, Iíll turn to Reaktor."

Sitting in front of an impressive arsenal of computers and a large plasma screen, Cornish gives up the lowdown on her scoring rig. "Iím using Emagic Logic on a Mac G4 for sequencing, with the built-in synth plug-ins and the EXS24 soft sampler," she says. "I use up to four Gigastudio systems as well, for orchestral samples. I have an orchestral palette template set up on the Gigas and in Logic. I make careful use of MIDI controllers to get the same kind expression a well-trained musician would provide. I mix entirely in Logic."

Like many composers, Acreeís studio is in a state of constant transition, but he maintains a distinctly retro edge, at least in terms of his sequencer."I have a blue-and-white G3 that runs Opcode Studio Vision," he says, "and two PCs for Gigastudio. I have two E-mu E6400 samplers, which I use to handle some of the overflow from the Giga PCs, as I tend to max out the polyphony."

While having a great sample collection such as VSL or SO puts you on the road to capturing the realism of an actual orchestra, it can only get you halfway to your goal. Going the distance requires an intimate knowledge of what goes into orchestral writing, the characteristics of each instrument, and a few tricks of the trade. See "Roadmaps for Orchestral Maneuvers" below for a list of excellent resources.

"A common mistake that composers make is that they donít rely on real-world orchestration," says Acree. "You have to know the basic principles, such as voice leading, chord spacing, and the individual characteristics and ranges of each instrument."

Having spent much time performing as a classically-trained violinist, Cornish attains orchestral realism with a combination of her ears and her knowledge. "I rely on my ears, which is the most important part of scoring orchestral music in a MIDI studio," she says. "If a sample doesnít sound right, then I donít use it, even if I would score that instrument for live orchestra. I know in my head exactly how the music should sound when played by a real orchestra. So I use that as my basis and try to get as close as possible. I voice the instruments as I would if I were orchestrating the same piece for live orchestra, and keep all the instruments within their range.

"For a really massive string sound, I usually double the cellos and basses in octaves and leave the melody for just the violins, in octaves as well. I fill in harmonies in violas. Where synth players often go wrong is when they put in too much harmony in the middle; this tends to make things sound muddy. For brass I like to interweave voices, so I donít have each section by themselves. I might take a chord and alternate notes between horns and trombones for a more beautiful sound. It blends better. You need to be careful to not let low brass like the trombones get too close together ó no interval smaller than a fifth between voices in the lower register. With a synth orchestra, I do a lot less doubling than I would with the real thing. For example, I donít double violins with winds on melodies, or it starts to sound very synthy."

Once your parts have been written and sequenced following the laws of orchestral physics, the next step is to add expression and dynamics into your work. This is typically accomplished using expression pedals, mod wheels, or MIDI sliders to control MIDI continuous controllers. "Iím a big advocate of capturing a real-time performance with MIDI," says Price. "I try to use controllers that are as expressive as possible. I use a Roland EV-7 foot pedal for volume. Since I play saxophone, it was easy for me to pick up the Yamaha WX-7 wind controller to play in wind and brass parts, or at least to add expression. I also use the Roland Handsonic to play in percussion parts in real time ó itís an incredibly sensitive hand drum MIDI pad. The idea is that if you capture real-time performances, the result will sound musical. I play in every line of the score. If the strings are sustaining a chord, I play in each line separately, rather than play all the notes of the chord in one pass."

Pedal controllers figure heavily into Acreeís orchestrations as well. "Ducking the attacks of samples is important. Most sample patches are created to be used universally for both fast and slow passages. But if you want to use a string patch in a slow passage, you have to compensate for the attack of the patch with the volume pedal.

"A lot of patches are programmed to attenuate the filter with the mod wheel, and thatís certainly a useful way to control timbre and dynamics. But if youíre already using both hands while playing a string or brass patch, you may want to consider re-assigning the filter to a pedal rather than the mod wheel. I use two pedals: The one on the right is the volume pedal, and the one on the left is set to control the filter or expression."

"If I want a dramatic crescendo in the trombones," says Cornish. "I raise the volume with MIDI, but also I use the mod wheel to crossfade to louder samples, which changes the timbre from light to aggressive ó much more realistic."

Roadmaps for Orchestral Maneuvers

The following books are some of the most relied-upon guides to traditional orchestration. Read any of them, and youíll come up with tons of ideas that will help make your MIDI orchestrations sound more realistic.


The Study of Orchestration, Samuel Adler.

The Technique of Orchestration, Kent Wheeler Kennan.

Orchestration, Walter Piston.

Instrumentation and Orchestration, Alfred Blatter.

Style and Orchestration, Gardner Read.

Principles of Orchestration, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov.

Anatomy of the Orchestra, Norman Del Mar.

Orchestration, by Cecil Forsyth.

Learning the ropes and then finding success arenít steps that necessarily follow one another smoothly. But there are things you can do to give yourself the best shot possible. Youngís outlook has always been very positive. "Becoming a film composer is a doable thing," he says, "if you have the willingness to go the distance. It takes a lot of desire to get there, but if you have the talent, it can be accomplished over time." In fact, Young will even offer you advice personally if you contact him through his website www.christopher-young.com. Price can also be reached via email at www.jonathanprice.com.

Cornish offers this advice: "As long as you have focus and develop your talent, there is no reason why you shouldnít pursue a career as a film composer. Itís highly rewarding, though it requires a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Meeting good filmmakers and developing relationships with directors and producers is important. Scoring a good film, even if itís quite small, can lead to more scoring work. And you never know when the film or the filmís director may do very well on the next one."

Acree agrees and adds, "You have to be strong-willed and thick-skinned. Being a talented composer is a prerequisite, but thereís so much more that goes into getting jobs and dealing with criticism. You have to be prepared for the moment when what you think is the best thing youíve ever written gets thrown out. You may often feel like youíre working on product more than collaborating on an artistic endeavor. If you want to make a living at it, prepare yourself for the fact that itís a tough business to get into and just as difficult to stay in once youíre in it.

The Virtual Concert Hall

Many musicians use virtual orchestras as a mock up for what will ultimately be performed by a live ensemble. There are many others ó myself included ó for whom the expressive potential of MIDI makes it artistic medium in its own right, capable of creating a sound worthy of being the end result of the compositional process. Though musicians use various hardware and software setups to realize their ideas, the core issue is universal: how to achieve the most musically expressive score with the technology you have at your disposal. Weíll focus on some concepts and details which can help bring expressiveness and intention to your music. As with any medium, MIDI has its strengths and limitations. It takes a bit of knowledge and experience to infuse a MIDI score with musicality and expression. It means understanding your sounds and samples, and exploiting all of the parameters that can lead to a more musical result.

The virtual orchestra gives us options we donít have with acoustic instruments. We can use samples of acoustic instruments to orchestrate our music, or we can use sounds that canít be duplicated in the acoustic realm. These sounds are often complex, often with built-in rhythmic pulsations produced with sample-and-hold, LFO, or other synthesis techniques. When using complex electronic sounds such as these, listen to the harmonics and rhythmic patterns that are present. This will give you a hint as to how to proceed to integrate this timbre into an orchestral setting. In the electronic orchestra, even just one synthesizer patch can be a complex texture in and of itself, with multiple amplitude and filter envelopes, dynamic panning, and modulation synced to tempo. Classical orchestration know-how would seem not to help much when youíre trying to integrate synth sounds and orchestral sounds, but the underlying principles still apply. See "Texture, Not Conjecture" below for an overview of some orchestration concepts that are equally at home with acoustic and synthesized sounds.

Orchestration is the interaction of harmony and melody with timbre and texture. If you consider melody, harmonic progression, and rhythmic motifs as a way to assign structure to a musical impulse, then timbre and any movement within a timbre can also contribute to the structure. When you look at it this way, orchestration includes all uses of sound as a means of evoking texture. Whether you use samples of acoustic instruments, complex synthesized textures, voice, recordings of live instruments, or sounds occurring in nature, thereís an art and a craft to assembling them in a meaningful and expressive way. The principles are the same, whether youíre dealing with a virtual orchestra or a real one.

Unity and variety are two of your biggest allies: Too much unity, or too much repetition without variation, and you run the risk of boredom. Too much variety, or a lack of structural cohesiveness, you might get a kind of chaos thatís less than desirable. I strive to create compositions that have autonomy, in which everything seems to belong together, and that also have a sense of inevitability, where the music seems rightfully determined to resolve the way it does. This isnít easy, as there are inherently contradictory demands involved in the course of working with your virtual orchestra that require
much thought, patience and musical insight to solve.

In your own music, pay close attention to the harmonics in your orchestrations, listen to your sound deeply, and strive for clarity. Even if you donít want to sound anything remotely like a symphony orchestra, there is still much to learn by understanding how to infuse gesture, intention and expression in your work.

Itís often difficult to separate orchestration from composition. Many of the timbre choices open to you involve planning how the pieceís structure evolves, and orchestral textures are often employed to contribute to the form of the composition. I find Walter Pistonís idea of the seven textural types very
useful to keep in mind as I work out the orchestration of a piece.

Type Name
I Orchestral Unison
II Melody & Accompaniment
III Secondary Melody
IV Part Writing
V Contrapuntal Texture
VI Chords
VII Complex Texture

 

Mahler said the essence of orchestration is variety, variety, and variety. To me, that means that varying the texture is one of our most important tools. One moment music is homophonic, the next, it can be polyphonic. The winds can be playing in a choral-style texture, followed by a monophonic tutti. Heterophony is commonly used to create melodic variation: One instrument (or several) can play the primary melodic element while another group outlines that same melodic line by playing only notes which accent the melodic curve. This can be done at the unison, at the octave; there are countless variations.

Closely related techniques to this are join, drop-out, split and merge. A join occurs when an instrument is playing a line and is joined by another timbre while in the middle of a phrase. A drop-out is the opposite; several instruments are playing a given part and one or more take rests, bringing variation to the texture. A split occurs when two instruments are playing the same part and suddenly one splits off and begins playing another part against the first instrument. A merge is the opposite: two timbres are playing two distinct parts and merge to give more weight to one of the parts.

I use the idea of transparency to evaluate how my overall texture is working. Transparency is the principle by which all timbres that are used are contributing musically to the texture. If a timbre isnít contributing, it should be removed. With a transparent texture, the listener hears the overall effect of the many timbres playing together, but they can also easily hear the individual parts that make up the orchestration.

Ultimately, itís all about creating a blend and balancing the sound, creating contrast and unity by combining timbres. Getting a good blend means that when numerous timbres are sounding together, the overall effect is pleasing and no single instrument stands out ó unless you want it to. By "balance," I mean the elements all sit well in their frequency and amplitude domains. In my own music, I also make every effort to distinguish between which elements are primary in the texture, which are secondary, and which are playing a more subliminal role.

Orchestral weight is another way to look at it; this means some elements are more heavily orchestrated than others. In homophonic music, the melody may be orchestrated with numerous instruments in octaves, unisons, or some other interval. Some elements may have a single instrument playing them. In a polyphonic texture the orchestral weight may be distributed more evenly among the individual melodic lines.

In the acoustic world, the composer, conductor, mixing engineer, and mastering engineer are usually four different people. In the virtual orchestra, orchestrating and mixing are sometimes indistinguishable, and mixing itself becomes a type of conducting, albeit in virtual time. Make sonic balance a concern throughout your process, and maybe your mastering engineer wonít have a lot to do.

How Should It Pan Out?

You can get an additional level of realism from your virtual orchestra by carefully placing your instruments within the stereo field. An orchestration reference book can be handy here, as it can provide diagrams that show the standard orchestral stage seating arrangement. With this as a guide, you can pan the violins and brass to the left, the cellos and the low brass to the right, and violas and woodwinds towards the center.

Jerry Gerber has a different take on panning as a tool for adding realism to MIDI orchestra tracks. "Many musicians like to pan the virtual orchestra by following the seating arrangement of the acoustic orchestra," he says. "But when you listen to music through two speakers, you miss some of the sonic information that the concert hall provides. So a technical compensation is required. The double basses in the orchestra are usually off to the right side of the ensemble. But with two speakers, the bass sounds best in the center. I prefer panning the first violins hard left and the seconds hard right, the violas soft left and cellos soft right, and the basses center. This gives a full stereo panorama of the strings, and when the violins play two distinct melodic lines, the stereo separation helps create the illusion of a larger space.

"In my concept of the virtual orchestra, I use a dynamic panning scheme, where the pan changes and fluctuates with the interplay of the pitches and rhythms, using panning as a dynamic rather than static element in the mix."

Making MIDI Tracks Expressive

As a digital orchestrator, youíre not just assigning musical parts to instruments, youíre defining how those instruments will be played on the final recording. Traditional orchestration does in fact involve layering sounds upon one another, but with MIDI, itís all about how notes are connected to one another. If you donít pay attention to this, phrases can sound mechanical and choppy, and no amount of brilliant orchestrating can bring it to life.

Just as you should keep in mind the various elements of texture, there are six essential parameters that are involved with each note you sequence:

ē Pitch

ē Duration

ē Timbre

ē Envelope (primarily amplitude attack and release)

ē Velocity

ē Time (location relative to the beat)

To create expressive phrases, satisfying legato passages, fast runs, and other convincing gestures, youíll need to pay attention to all of these parameters. Attack and release times, note length and velocity play a crucial role in the sequencing of a fine legato line, and sometimes a very small adjustment of one of the parameters does the trick. Even a loud tutti wonít cover up these intimate connections between notes. In a fast passage, for example, select every other note (or whatever group of notes represent the weak pulse to you) and lower their velocity by 20% or so. This helps shape the line by adding some variation.

A slow legato passage demands a slightly different tack. Letís look at two half-notes; weíll call them Note 1 and Note 2. Note 1ís release time is one of the parameters that may need adjustment. The duration, or actual length, of Note 1 will also need to be tweaked. The goal is to get the attack of Note 2 to be as neutral as possible, so that it sounds as though the moment the first noteís decay is done, the second note begins, but with no increase in amplitude. Whatís happening is that Note 1ís length is overlapping with the start of the Note 2. Lengthening Note 1 by between 3 Ė12% usually does the trick. By adjusting the velocity and attack of Note 2, you can get a smooth legato.

When sequencing brass, I prefer to use three individual patches and play the individual lines to simulate a section. In a trumpet section passage, for example, Iíll also detune trumpets 2 and 3 by 20 cents or so, one higher and the other lower. I also move both trumpets 2 and 3 off the beat, one a bit advanced in time and one slightly late. Finally, Iíll pan trumpets 2 and 3 hard left and hard right.

Jerry Gerber has composed music for dance, film, T.V., concerts, and computer games. His seventh CD release for virtual orchestra, The Art of Midi Sequencing, is on the Ottava Records label and is distributed online by CDBaby. He lives in San Francisco where he composes and teaches composition and music production.

Guitarist Michael Prager is the author of Reason 2.5 POWER and co-author of Mac Home Recording POWER. He is also featured in the Instant Pro DVD series
published by Artist Pro.

This article presented courtesy of Keyboard Magazine.

home | recordings | compositions | press | services | store | instruction | articles | studio | biography | credits | links