Playing a Virtual Orchestra

Although I seem to write mostly music notated on paper for live performers, I’ve always been interested in computer tools for composing and sound design. I started my recording business a few years ago because I wanted to put my audio tools to more use. Last year, I decided to invest in the sophisticated sampled orchestra sounds that are now available and spend some time learning how to create natural-sounding demos that I could use in my online catalog.

My series of Poetry-Inspired solos started as an orchestration exercise for these orchestra sounds. I wrote the first solo for flute to provide the musical material and I began learning how to program an expressive MIDI performance using the great-sounding orchestra samples that are available these days. I bought East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Gold last year which used Native Instruments Kompakt Player for playback.

This year I got Native Instruments Kontakt 3 for playback because Kompakt no longer worked
on Mac OS 10.5. When I first got the East West sounds, I loved them, but as I tried to tweak the sounds into an expressive melodic line, I found their flaws. Working with a solo instrument is a very good test. The more spare the orchestration, the more of a challenge to shape an expressive phrase. There are no other sounds to hide behind.

The East West library has a lot of articulations – various staccatos, accents, bright sounds, and covered sustained sounds. This is great for providing variety, phrase by phrase, or even note by note. The biggest problem is the variety of ambience for many of the sounds. Some are very dry and others have a lot of reverb. They don’t sound like they are in the same room. Sometimes I can cover this up by blending sounds – most but not all of the various articulations are in tune with each other. I can also add reverb to the dry sounds. The result might sound acceptable over speakers, but over headphones it’s hard to hide the ambience change.

I was having particular trouble getting a natural feeling on the clarinet solo “Summer Into Winter”. The East West clarinet sounds were too uneven and weren’t working in this exposed situation. Then I discovered that the Kontakt 3 library had Vienna Symphonic Library sounds. Those clarinet sounds were warmer and were smooth and even, giving me a good blend from note to note. The Kontakt 3 Vienna sounds don’t have as many articulations as East West, but I could add East West sounds for some accents and short notes with minimal blending problems.

The tempo of the performance is just as important as the sounds. Even if the sounds aren’t perfect, you can shape an expressive performance by manipulating the tempo. In my first pass at creating a free cadenza-like feel for rhapsodic solos like these, my tempo was too fast and the pauses and breaths too short. I might think it sounds dynamic and energetic, but later I’ll listen and it will be hectic. It’s interesting to learn how much adjustment one can make to the tempo of individual notes in a phrase to get a more expressive flow. I had to make pretty extreme slowdowns on the first note of a group to get an expressive leaning on the note.

I’ve got to give credit to Peter Alexander of TrueSpec Systems and Alexander University
for giving me the idea for the Poetry-Inspired series. He designed orchestration exercises with poetry as the stimulus for creating the musical material. His poetry picks were wonderfully succinct and appropriate. He now offers this material as an online orchestration class.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.