Yesterday, I read a bulletin board thread in which a musician wanted to know how to sound organic while using sampled orchestral instrument sounds. I wrote a quick reply to the board post, but afterwards I thought that the subject matter deserves a longer exploration.
Certainly, we’d all like to work with live musicians whenever possible, but most often we’ll be composing music for a sampled sound library triggered by a controller keyboard. Even composers who are writing their scores for live orchestra will first need to make demo recordings with a sampled orchestra to show what the final music will sound like. These demos generally have to be top notch. Because of this, there really aren’t many composers for entertainment media who don’t have to master the art of simulating the sound of acoustic instruments using a sample library. So, how do we obtain that organic sound?
Sample libraries and virtual instruments have become pretty sophisticated. A single virtual instrument for a woodwind such as an oboe might include hundreds of articulations and playing techniques. These might include trills, staccato, legato, runs, grace notes, and special programming for unique sonic transitions generated when the musician plays interval jumps such as fifths or octaves.
While it might seem like all this would make a composer’s job easier, it can actually be the reverse. Years ago, a simulated oboe simply would not sound very good, and composers would either use such an instrument in a very limited way or avoid it altogether. Nowadays, these highly sophisticated virtual instruments often give the impression that a realistic, organic sound can be attained with ease. While a modern virtual instrument makes it possible to create a realistic sound, it doesn’t make it easy to do so. This results in a lot of confusion and frustration as budding composers use these full-featured orchestral libraries with high expectations, only to achieve less-than-stellar results.
In the end, we always have to keep thinking about real musicianship when creating virtual musical performances. How would an actual musician perform this instrument? Where would breaths be taken? How would a string player bow this passage? What part of the hand would a djembe player be using when performing these rhythms? Even the smallest details can make a world of difference. The individual members of a taiko ensemble would always play their instruments with slight rhythmic irregularities, since no two human beings can match each other’s performances exactly. A vigorous and high-energy clarinet solo might need the addition of barely-perceptible clicking noises to the sound, to account for how aggressively the player would be hitting the keys. An intimate acoustic guitar solo might need fret sounds to be added, to account for the way in which the musician’s fingers would swipe across the strings. All these details add enormously to the organic sound of the music, helping to disguise the fact that it has been created in an entirely virtual environment.
In my reply to the bulletin board thread about achieving an organic sound, I mentioned the benefits of watching instructional videos made by musicians demonstrating their instruments. Sites like YouTube and Vimeo can be enormously helpful. There are literally thousands of how-to videos on YouTube in which virtuoso musicians share their skills. Watching a talented musician running through an array of instrumental techniques is one of the most valuable resources available for a composer who is attempting to create a convincingly organic sound.
Well, that concludes my first blog post! I hope you enjoyed it, and please feel free to leave comments below. Do any of you have tips about working with sample libraries and virtual instruments, or questions about them?
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