Part 1: Intro & Basics
Writing for the virtual orchestra is an art that has come a long way in the last two decades or so. With the advances in computer hardware, sequencing software, MIDI and instrument sampling, it’s now easier than ever to create astonishingly professional sounding orchestral music using readily-available tools, even for the beginner. Although the process of simulating a full orchestra electronically requires great skill, patience and attention to detail, the process is far more flexible and economical for the media composer than using a full ensemble of live musicians. For this reason, very much of the music heard on the television and in cinema uses some form or other of virtual orchestra.
In this series of articles, we’ll be taking a look at the tools and technique of orchestral scoring, using PreSonus Studio One as our sequencer.
With the right tools, determination and a good ear, it’s perfectly possible to sequence very fine orchestral music with minimal musical training, without any experience working with an orchestra, even without being able to read and write traditional staff notation. While these things will no doubt be of tremendous benefit when we go to create our first orchestral piece, they are by no means essential to a producer willing to listen critically, make mistakes, learn incessantly, and refine his technique over time. It is, of course, vitally important to listen to as much orchestral music as possible, and to listen in an active way. Try to recognize specific things the composer uses to achieve the sound he does, whether it works well, and why. It is through critical listening that we become more acutely aware of what makes a successful piece of music.
The most often heard criticism of MIDI based music is that the result sounds too mechanical and computerized. The main reason for this is usually to do with the way the music has been programmed- if sufficient time and attention is not paid to adding in nuance and subtlety that make up a great performance, the final output will suffer for it. With MIDI, you have the opportunity to edit every aspect of the performance- from timing, pitch, velocity, articulation, vibrato, tuning… etc. With a large ensemble, this may seem like a formidable task, however, a good knowledge of the instrument, and an instinct of what goes into a quality musical performance makes the process of crafting the perfect performance an enjoyable and rewarding task.
A key element of being able to write effectively for the virtual orchestra is a deep understanding of the instrument you’re writing for- and by that I mean both the real acoustic instrument and the particular instrument patch you happen to be using. You should be aware of how it responds & behaves in the different registers, its best mode of use within an orchestral context, the ASDR (Attack, Sustain, Decay, Release) times of the patch as well as how to best blend all of your patches gel together into a cohesive unit.
When a composer writes music, he traditionally does so with the intention of having the music played by a live soloist or group. A skilful composer does not simply write however he likes, but writes idiomatically for the given instruments- There are all manner of practicalities to consider when composing for a live performance, depending on the instrument. For instance, the following would be a very unlikely line to give a flute player (or else an incredibly mean and sadistic one), simply because it does not allow anywhere for the poor flutist to take a breath!
Crucially, however, we are writing for an electronic performance, not a live one. So, while we need not necessarily allow our electronic performers time to take a breath (although would be advised, for the sake of realism), we must equally write in such a way that brings out the best in our virtual instruments. That means getting to know your instruments well. That means practicing with them, and using them a lot, just as if you were practicing on an acoustic instrument.
Throughout this series, we’ll look at every orchestral section in detail, as well as advice on hardware, software, sequencing, compositional technique, rudimentary music theory and aesthetic considerations. Everything we look at will be equally valid in any DAW, but I will be offering advice and tips specific to Studio One. Hold on to your baton!