Orchestral Sounds #3
I hope you’ve been finding the series useful so far. Catch up on part 1 and part 2. In this part 3, I will be going into the what, why and how of building your own orchestral template. While every composer-producer has their own approach to this, let’s examine some of the important factors to consider while building your own template.
Sample Library Type – Dry/Wet?
Not all sample library developers are the same. Some offer samples that are pre-recorded dry, while others offer samples that are pre-recorded wet. This basically means that the instrument sound is mixed along with the sound of the spaces each of them were recorded in.
- There are benefits to using both types of libraries. The two largest parts (if not the biggest I daresay) of being able to quickly produce effective and realistic orchestral mockups is being able to emulate the sound of the players playing their instruments realistically and in the space they are playing in. Knowledge of sound engineering, room audio principles and how to capture it is a science in itself, and many professionals spend several years trying to get better at this. As a composer-producer, it may not be the best use of your time to always have to figure this out. Hence, wet/semi-wet libraries which capture the ambience of the room and the sound of those instruments playing those different articulations in that very room. This is great because you have a great out of the box sound and with very little effort and (some) control over the room sound and reverb, you can get outstanding sounding mockups.
- “Why dry?“, you may ask then. Well, the biggest factor here is control over what the final sound ends up like. Wet libraries do not afford you as much control over the sound of the room as you’d like. This may not seem like a big thing initially to many composers, but as you start using more and more (wet) libraries, and listening to productions from other composers around the globe, you’ll start hearing familiarities – primarily because, many of those composers also end up using those wet libraries. And because they also have the same limitation of not as much control over the room’s sound, the overall probability increases that they’ll end up sounding like something you did (especially if you all use default settings, which many newer and young composers do end up doing).
- At the end of the day, it’s up to you. I’d say experiment with a bit of both and see which philosophy you end up choosing. There is no right or wrong. The bottom line is how good and realistic your mockups sound. That’s all.
Which libraries to purchase? What plugins are required? Which DAW to use? Goodness knows how many other investment related questions?
- The internet makes thing easier than ever, because it’s made the world a much smaller place and people are way easier to access than before. There’s a lot of excellent groups on Facebook. Look for keywords like “virtual”, “synth”, “sample library”, mixed with words like “orchestration” and you’ll find over a dozen groups. Join these groups and get insight from them. Don’t be shy and afraid you’re asking a “noob” or stupid question. Everyone was where you were at some point. And for the most part, the people on these groups are very friendly, helpful and ridiculously knowledgeable. So take advantage of this ever-growing community and the power of social media.
- Also use YouTube (or other video platforms) to check out demos from other users who’ve recently purchased and reviewed one or more sample libraries (be sure to listen in HD as YouTube loses audio quality too at lower quality settings).
- Note: Not everything requires you to spend lots of money. You would be amazed as to how much stuff you can get which is very affordable right from DAWs to libraries to plugins. So do try out those options if you’re on a tight budget. The principles I describe in this article (and the past articles) will still help you get the best sound out of your production system.
Production Template Considerations
OK, so you’ve got your first set of libraries (hopefully that covers all the orchestral instruments and sections), and some plugins and a DAW. Now what?
What? To set up instruments in your DAW, and their entire signal chains (inserts, EQs, FX sends, reverbs etc.) can be an arduous and monotonous exercise. Imagine having to do this again and again for 60-70 instruments each time you want to write for an orchestra or some other similar large project. This is where templates come in.
Why? Building a template is a good exercise as it becomes a great starting point without your having to redo all this work again and again. It allows you to store everything in your project as a baseline that you can build on top of.
How? There are several factors here to take into consideration and again it depends on your choice of libraries, plugins, overall workflow, etc. However, I’ll still try and cover as much ground and keeping it free of any specific DAW, libraries, plugins, etc.
Track signal flow and control – How much you’re able to tweak every track right from the most raw/dry track stage to the finished, fully produced stage will influence how flexible your template is to different needs. The bulk of your work in building an orchestral production template happens in setting this up for each and every track that you add to your project.
Mix & Production – This is really about balance, and getting a good production sound where all the elements in your mix are heard as intended throughout the length of that track. So, as the track evolves, your mixing and production strategy might need to evolve too. The output of this stage is either a stereo/quad output track or stems.
Mastering – Finally, this is about the polish and shine that you apply at a global level. It’s like the equivalent of a transparent glossy (or matte) coat that one applies to a piece of art or furniture to give it that carefully produced and high quality feel.
- Everything done at this stage is really done at a more abstract level and one thinks in terms of how to treat the stereo/quad output tracks or stems from the mixing stage. Note: One generally does not try and fix composition/orchestration/mixing issues at this stage. It will more likely end in disaster than not.
- Traditionally, mastering also talks about readying the track for distribution which meant knowing how it is going to be consumed. In the pre-streaming services era, this was generally about getting the track(s) to sound as good as they could on the desired distribution media (cassette, CD, etc.) That definition in its purest form hasn’t changed. With the advent of different streaming services and distribution channels, and how they differently treat audio/video, mastering is still an important consideration to ensure you get the best sound for your track on a specific destination medium.
Building Your Own Template
Routing & Track Organization
- Set up your MIDI tracks per instrument (and articulations if you choose to use that approach) and route them to your sample playback engine. This could be Kontakt or Vienna Instruments Pro, or something else. It’s important to ensure that you have control over the stereo image of each track. So either these tracks should be Mono and later placed accurately in a Stereo field, or they can be Stereo as long as you can control the position somewhere along their signal chains before the tracks hit your reverbs.
- Tip: Don’t forget to organize these tracks using folders (and icons & colour schemes if your DAW supports it) as once the track count gets higher, it’s easy to get lost in all the scrolling back & forth and up & down. I personally use the orchestral score order to organize my tracks as it becomes easy to compare against music in a notation program (or on paper) whenever I need to.
- Ensure that the outputs of your playback engine (Kontakt/VI Pro/etc.) are routed back appropriately to your DAW. Enable those Outputs and set up your channel strip on those tracks i.e. Insert Effects, EQ, and Track Sends (pre/post fader will depend on your samples and approach – will discuss more later).
Compression/Saturation, EQ, Reverbs
All this entirely depends on what libraries and plugins you’re using so there is no one magic bullet here.
- Compression & Saturation – This again depends on your libraries, but the only inserts I personally take into consideration are analog saturation to give some warmth to the otherwise pristine, but sterile digital samples. Orchestral music has a very large dynamic range by design. One can easily address the entire range through good orchestration practices and techniques. On the other hand, to fix volume/balance issues via loads of compression is just poor orchestration in my opinion and will reflect badly on your production (and you).
- EQ – In orchestral mockups, EQ again should be used with light and broad strokes as opposed to surgically trying to fix things. Think of EQ as giving an overall tone to your sound and not to get a louder flute part. At the next level, think about each of the sections and the instruments that comprise their high-mid-low registers.
- Reverb – It’s a good idea to generally to get all the music to sound as if it was being played in the same room. This is what gives it more realism. That being said, sample libraries are unequal in terms of their treatment of long and short articulations and also don’t completely and accurately sample how a player would play a short/long articulation in a live context. To address this, a common practice is to use longer reverb on instruments with long articulations, and shorter (or no) reverb on instruments with short articulations. Another common practice is to use a convolution reverb to put all the instruments in the same “space” and then using a algorithmic reverb on the overall mix to blend them together. Less is more here, so be careful with how much you algorithmic reverb you add. It’s only to get the mix to sit well.
- Tip: Depending on your libraries and writing, if you’re hearing a lot of boominess/muddiness in your mixes, it’s probably due to low and low-mid build-up as you write for more and more instruments and add them to the mix. Furthermore, many reverbs will automatically sum up the mid-low end coming from the early/late reflections across all the instruments leading to a muddy sound. You can fix this in part by orchestrating better, and also by using some low/high pass filters on the instrument tracks before sending them to the reverbs i.e. low pass on the low register instruments, and high pass on the high register instruments. Use your ear to ensure that the filters don’t affect the natural sound of the samples in any way by sweeping up to just where it affects the sound, and then dialling it back in the opposite direction till you hear the natural sound of the instrument again.
OK, now that we’ve gotten through all of that, I thought I’d give you a walk through of my template.
- I have what I’d say is a medium-large sized template that uses my all my primary production tools – Cubase, VSL VE Pro, VSL MIR Pro, and several plugins from various developers.
- The walk-through will give you an idea of how I’ve applied some of the concepts described above while building my own template.
- I intentionally did not spend time on the libraries and plugins I use as the idea of these articles is to give you the building blocks that will help you to create your own sound and style. If this is something that’s specifically of interest to you all, please comment below and I will consider posting a walk-through of my libraries in the future if there’s enough demand. 🙂
I hope you found this article useful and as always, if you have any questions/feedback, please comment below or on the walk-through video. Enjoy!