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2 Jun 2020

Virtual Orchestration 101 - 15 tips explained

producer Virtual Orchestration 101 - 15 tips explained


Orchestral sample libraries have become so good it's hard to tell them apart from the real thing. The big name libraries used to cost an eye watering amount, but with companies like Spitfire Audio releasing stripped down versions of their best products for free, now everyone can learn to compose orchestral music. Orchestral and cinematic music is also in high demand for professional work. 

Many composers can make a good living from writing music for tv, film trailers and commercials from the comfort of their own home. In this article we're going to look at methods and principles used by professional composers to enhance their virtual orchestras. The most effective and best way to inject realism into your orchestral mockups is to use some form of midi cc expression. You can purchase a midi controller for very cheap, but we highly recommend the Nakedboards MC-8 which we recently reviewed on the channel. These controllers allow you to record and control the dynamics, expression and vibrato of each instrument. 

Our recommended MIDI CC Controller

Negative delay offsets 

Cubase and probably most DAWs can add a fixed negative delay to MIDI tracks so they trigger the note early. This is essential for most staccato attacks which tend to be slow with samples. Contrabass around -50ms, Cellos -35ms, Viola and Violin maybe -25ms.

Layer Multiple Libraries

Once you add more than one library it starts to get more realistic (works for section sounds, not small section and especially not solo instruments).

Tons of automation

The more detail to your automation of expression and vibrato level the better.

Un-synced Automation

Make sure every separate MIDI track has different automation so you don't get everything moving together.

Avoid overly accented staccato

Real instruments tend not to massively leap between dynamic levels when they accent beats, for example at the start of the bar or with syncopated rhythms. Bad mockups often have this problem.

Use the best libraries

Sad but true multiple amazing (expensive!) libraries will sound much more realistic than one cheap one.

Un-quantize & unsync the timing

Don't have staccato notes all quantised exactly to the beat. A real section gets part of its sound from people being slightly out of time with each other. Not that you want it totally out of time either - just a good sounding compromise. Also don't copy the quantising from one part to another - if for example you have 2 sample libraries for layered violas they need to be slightly out of time with each other.

Use some phrase libraries for patterns & runs

Some sample libraries have sampled repeating notes or runs which are going to sound more real than repeated triggered notes. They can sound weird isolated but help pull a mix together. Not wanting to make this a plug but my company did a few of these for Zero G - Spiritoso, Animato, Perpetuo and Luminoso - they sound a bit small and thin on their own but help bigger sample libraries to sound more realistic during repeated patterns.

Try to add some real instruments

Expensive if you're paying great players, but the more real players you add, the more real it will all sound.

Mix using room emulations

This is great at adding a sense of a real space, especially when blending small sounding live players with big symphonic libraries although caution is needed adding what is a room space to samples with room on them already. Ideally you'd blend a bit of this on more close mic samples with roomy samples. A sweet spot where this adds a lot before it starts making it sound like an echoey old oil drum.

Add sample modelling or audio modelling instruments

These two companies (formerly one company) make extremely expressive instruments which are great for solo performances or layering up. But they sound dry so need Vienna MIR or at least great reverb to help blend. And, alone they sound a bit thin and weird so sound best blended with bigger sample libraries.

Add other great solo instruments

Adding a few of any great expressive solo sampled instruments played with a lot of attention to automation will help.

Avoid heavy legato transitions

Big sliding portamentos are bit of a giveaway and one of the first things that jump out as unrealistic. Some of these in the mix will add realism so it's a case of finding a good compromise and working out where they sound best.

Avoid exposed single instruments

 if you're amazing you might get away with it but usually adding two and more great sounding, well programmed instruments will immediately sound much more realistic than any instrument on its own where the flaws leap out

Standard orchestration skills needed

rules might be made to be broken but starting with the basics can help realism - e.g. contrabass and cello moving in octaves, having wide pitch spacing at the bottom and top of the register, avoiding layering multiple violin parts doing different things (e.g. chords, melody and staccato all at once instead of moving together as you'd usually have), instruments and instrument sections taking turns with calls and answers instead of all layered on top of each other in a blurry mush, and thinking about the expressive associations of different instruments to paint scenes (e.g. mysterious bassoon & oboe, heroic horns, delightful dreamy harp glissandos, etc!).

In addition to these points, here are some tips from professional composers: 

Joao GG Rodrigues

"Even if you don't have MIR be creative with your reverbs. Cleverly using more than one can help adding a whole lot of realism. I would recommend using at least 2: the first one shorter - trying to emulate the sound of a room, and the second one longer - adding depth and colour to it all.” (Joao GG Rodrigues)

Tom Gire, owner of Brand X

“Take the sample and put it in the room with the 'rest' of the orchestra aka - whatever your longest room tail with the sounds you are choosing try and match it with the shorter tailed samples. Then, add the 'tail' to all the samples that is suitable for the type of track you are producing. Longer tails for lush, romantic, or slow burn epic, but shorter for punchy action or to get more of a vintage sound. You will also want to eq the verb just as you might each 'section' of the orch. Don't need anything below 20hz on anything, and most orch samples have a lot of 'rumble' left in them that can really muddy up a mix, but moreover muddy up your reverb if you don't clean up what you send.” (Tom Gire, owner of Brand X)

Emma Butterworth

“I'd also say that you need to listen to as many real orchestral and string recordings as possible. If you don't have a strong picture what the real sound is, then you won't know if your sample orchestra really sounds good or not.” (Emma Butterworth)

Kyle Hartman

“On the mixing side, I would say that some good tape saturation or subtle vinyl distortion can really warm up each section and can add some much-needed imperfections into the sound to make it feel more like a live performance.” (Kyle Hartman)

Lionel Schmitt

“To me it's dynamics and timing that makes most of the difference. If you have static lines without dynamic variance of hard quantized lines you can as well put *mockup* in the title. When I started to always keep the CC1 lines 'alive' it was a whole new world. I also find timing of the legato transitions (but also longs in general) very important. Since they don't have an obvious 'hit point' like short notes it's important to do some careful listening and move them to a point where it sounds musical. I've heard pieces where every transition came in a little to late due to quantisation and lack of timing adjustment. Cringe!” (Lionel Schmitt)

Finally we suggest you go and check out some of these free libraries to get started with virtual orchestration. 

  1. LABS - Spitfire Audio
  2. BBC SO Discover - Spitfire Audio
  3. The Free Orchestra - Project Sam
  4. Layers - Orchestral Tools

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