Want to get started with scoring? Don’t worry, today’s super‑intelligent sample libraries have got your back.
Music composers and producers often face situations where a project requires orchestral sounds. Finding the sounds is not too much of a problem as there are plenty of excellent orchestral sample libraries available at a range of prices. However, knowing how to best use those libraries to create a credible orchestral arrangement can be more of a challenge. If you don’t have Orchestration 101 under your belt, are there strategies to overcome imposter syndrome and apply a ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach to orchestration?
While an orchestral purist might answer the above question with a firm ‘no’, providing you have a budget, music technology can provide a helping hand. We are all familiar with virtual drum, guitar or bass instruments that include ‘performance’ elements and, as long as you apply a dollop of musical sensibility that suits the genre, these tools can provide authentic performances to go with their authentic sounds.
It’s not all rock and pop instrumentation through; orchestral ‘virtual instrument performers’ (VIPs!) have also been around for some time. So, when creating credible orchestral elements for your own music projects, if you need to lean on some technology‑based assistance, which of the current crop of these tools might you turn to?
Strings are regularly blended into all sorts of musical contexts, be that any number of pop styles, metal (think symphonic metal) and a whole range of hybrid styles used in scoring for picture. In terms of string section performance roles, we might distinguish between sustained and single‑note (melodic phrases or ostinatos, for example) parts. The composer has to make appropriate articulation choices (legato, staccato, pizzicato, etc, as available in your sample‑based instrument). However, perhaps more problematic for the inexperienced string arranger is how the notes to be played (for example, in a chord) are distributed across the various sub‑sections — first violins, second violins, violas, cellos and basses — of the overall string section. Playing simple piano‑style chords with a basic string ensemble patch is not always going to produce the most authentic of results. Equally, grappling with five MIDI tracks (one for each of the five sub‑sections outlined above), and writing single‑note lines for each to create a more convincing ‘ensemble’ performance, can be a challenge.
If you want an accessible introduction to this topic, then parts 2 and 3 of Dave Stewart’s excellent The Sampled Orchestra SOS series (see www.soundonsound.com/series/sampled-orchestra) makes a great starting point. Thankfully, this is also something our ‘performer’ virtual orchestral instruments can assist with. Three recently released products — UJAM’s Striiiings, Native Instruments’ Actions Strings 2 and Kirk Hunter Studio’s Kinetic Strings — illustrate the potential.
UJAM’s Striiiings (shown above) lets you bypass the complexities of creating string parts in a number of ways. First, the instrument pragmatically presents the whole section as low strings (basses and cellos) and high strings (violas and violins). Second, under the hood, the Striiiings’ engine uses style‑based preset patterns whose playback follows your MIDI chord input. There are also options to control performance dynamics, independent control over root/bass notes, a simple note/chord entry system to trigger different patterns, and some powerful sound‑design elements if you want something other than just a pure orchestral string sound. It’s super‑simple to use and the only ‘gotcha’ is that you have to live within the ultimate limitation of the supplied performance patterns; there is no MIDI export or manual playback mode of the sounds.
NI’s Action Strings 2 (reviewed in full elsewhere in this issue) also simplifies the string section into low and high sub‑sections and uses style‑based preset patterns that adapt in real time to follow your MIDI note input. Playing dynamics are easily controlled via the mod wheel. While the majority of the supplied patten content is aimed at the creation of action/drama styles, a number of features let you work around that. First, AS2 includes a number of performance articulations, including sustained notes for creating slower, legato‑like, performances (but, somewhat surprisingly, not a pizzicato articulation). These can be played manually and a keyswitch system lets you easily move between manual articulations and pattern playback. Second, using a very flexible (and very ‘score‑like’) editing environment, AS2 allows you to fully edit both the low and high ensemble patterns; if you want something with less ‘drama’, then you can create that and save a user preset. Third, the instrument supports MIDI output if you want to adapt a performance further using the MIDI editing tools available in your DAW/sequencer.
KHS’s Kinetic Strings uses a different underlying approach with individual step‑sequencer lanes for each of the violins, violas, cellos and basses. These lanes define the rhythmic component of each instrument while the pitches are based upon MIDI note input (with velocity controlling dynamics). The UI allows you to define the active note ranges for each instrument, effectively distributing the notes across the different instrument groups rather like an orchestrator might do. Style‑based presets are included and you can use the step editors to create your own. With just three short performance articulations — spiccato, marcato and pizzicato (plus a sordini ‘muted’ option) — Kinetic Strings is not going to give you sustained chord parts but, for all sorts of ostinato‑style performances, it is both flexible and easy to use. It also offers MIDI output so parts can be exported to your DAW for further editing.
If you want to hear some of the possibilities, the online version of this article (https://sosm.ag/orchestration-assistant) has some audio examples I’ve created. While these by no means demonstrate the full range of what each app has to offer, hopefully, they will give you some sense of the potential.
There are a number of excellent drum and percussion libraries that include orchestral drum sounds and also deliver a decent dollop of ‘performance assistance’. While it’s not a budget option, if you want a conventional orchestral sound palette (as opposed to one with movie trailer‑style hype pre‑added) and are familiar with Toontrack’s Superior Drummer 3, then the Orchestral Percussion SDX is an impressive choice. The SDX is split into two volumes covering core orchestral drums/cymbals (taikos, timpani, bass drums, snare, cymbals, gongs, etc) and smaller percussion instruments (conga, bongos, woodblock, small metals, etc) respectively. The sounds ooze quality and authenticity.
Of course, you also get all the usual performance input that SD3’s engine has to offer. This includes a core set of MIDI grooves and all the usual options for editing/altering those grooves. These grooves generally target a single drum/instrument and, to build a complete performance, you simply combine two or more of these grooves. This can be done in SD3’s own Track system (you can merge grooves with the appropriate paste option) or by dragging and dropping grooves into your DAW/sequencer. It’s perhaps not an ‘instant’ complete performance but these groove building blocks provide almost endless combinations to serve as starting points.
In contrast, UJAM’s SE Drums provides a competitively priced orchestral‑meets‑cinematic drum instrument with an identical approach to Striiiings. As such, you get some great‑sounding orchestral drums and additional drum/percussion sounds, tools to ‘sound‑design’ these sounds (really useful for film/TV‑style cues, for example), and a large collection of style‑based presets, each with multiple drum patterns. Usefully, the preset categories identify those that make greater use of Drums’ excellent sound‑design options so, if you want to limit yourself to a more conventional orchestral/cinematic drum sound, it’s easy to find suitable starting points.
As with Striiiings, within a preset the sounds are divided into ‘low’ and ‘high’ components so you can easily change the sonic flavour to add variety to the performance. Additional performance options include some individual hits, fills, intros, endings and easy control over the overall dynamics. Providing you are happy to work within the confines of the preset styles/patterns, SE Drums makes it about as easy as it is ever going to get to generate a full cinematic drum/percussion track with just a few MIDI note triggers.
There are a good number of drum products that sit between the types of solution offered by Toontrack and UJAM. Two examples provide a good illustration of what’s possible: In Session Audio’s Drumatic Creator and Auddict’s PercX. Drumatic Creator tends towards more conventional cinematic drum sounds with a very well‑sampled core set of 40 different drum types alongside various percussion and ‘auxiliary’ sounds, powerful features for creating realistic ensemble drum groups and some cool sound‑design options. However, for our faking‑it needs, the impressive collection of MIDI‑based groove content provides some excellent performance options. These grooves can be easily auditioned within the plug‑in and then dragged and dropped to your host DAW/sequencer. The loops include core patterns, patterns featuring just low sounds or high sounds, intros, fills and endings. Performance dynamics are controlled by MIDI velocity. In short, you have everything you need to build a complete cinematic (if perhaps less than purist orchestral) drum performance with a minimum of fuss.
Auddict’s PercX includes many conventional orchestral instruments alongside others of a more hybrid or sound‑designed nature. There are some impressive kit presets included to get you started, and you can assemble your own. On the performance front, rather cleverly, playback of the individual drum sounds can be switched between a pattern‑based mode and a manual mode. This flexible MIDI‑note‑based triggering makes it easy to add performance variations to suit your musical needs. On screen, the pattern‑based mode presents itself like an audio loop within the GUI, but under the hood (and accessible for detailed editing) is a comprehensive MIDI editing environment where patterns can be tweaked to taste. Drag and drop to your DAW/sequencer is also supported. The instrument ships with an impressive collection of performance loops and there is also a brilliant system for controlling the dynamics of the drum performance. Finally, a clever randomisation system can generate new kits and new patterns or variations on existing ones. PercX does cinematic drums with ease but has considerable depth for those willing to explore.
As with the strings discussion earlier, I’ve created some short audio examples to give you some sense of how these sorts of performance‑friendly virtual instruments might be a fit for your own music production workflow.
Faking a full orchestral performance is obviously a more ambitious task. As such there are fewer options available, but those that do exist are very capable. If you want a more conventional orchestral sound, perhaps the most obvious candidate is Best Service’s The Orchestra Complete 2. Developed in collaboration with Sonuscore, this very respectable orchestral sample set (approximately 18GB in size) covers strings, brass and woodwinds (all with a good selection of articulations) and a smattering of percussion. The full package also includes some useful choir, piano and organ sounds.
The impressive selection of presets is organised into three interesting performance categories: Animated Orchestra, Orchestral Rhythms and Orchestral Colours. The last of these features conventional playable sampled‑based instruments giving you options for simply playing the sounds manually and, while these are all single‑articulation presets (sustains, spiccato, pizzicato, etc), they are very useable.
The assisted orchestration really starts in the other two preset categories, which both make use of a very clever performance engine. The (up to) five individual sounds that make up a preset can each be linked to one of three arpeggiator lanes or two volume (dynamics) envelopes. The envelopes are aimed at sustained sounds (most obviously useful for strings and brass) and allow you to create crescendo and diminuendo, for example (although the mod wheel can also be used to add playing dynamics). The arpeggiators allow you to create both rhythmic and harmonic lines (such as ostinatos). However, the pitch used in playback is controlled by the MIDI note(s) that you play so, whether rhythmically, dynamically or harmonically, the performance follows the notes or chords that you use to trigger it.
Two further features add to the orchestration assistance engine. First, each arpeggiator or envelope can be configured to only respond to particular notes, essentially ‘orchestrating’ your trigger notes across the five sounds within your preset. You can, therefore, create contrasts in how your cellos/basses play compared to your violas/violins (for example). Second, you also get MIDI export. This system will first capture the performance you create via your MIDI note input and then, when you finish playing, allow you to drag and drop the full MIDI performance generated by the engine on to five individual MIDI tracks. These can obviously be edited further but are ready to trigger playback either with some of The Orchestra Complete 2’s own ‘playable’ patches or using a different orchestral library.
Sample Logic’s Symphonic AI provides a somewhat different take on the ‘full assisted orchestra’ concept. While the underlying sample library features some 13GB of orchestral sounds curtesy of Red Room Audio, the 4‑core (four individual sounds in a global preset) UI/engine familiar from a number of Sample Logic’s other virtual instruments provides a suite of very creative effects and sound modulation possibilities. As with UJAM’s Striiiings, therefore, you can create both conventional and hybrid sounds from the instrument.
The individual instruments include both solo and ensemble string, brass and woodwind sounds (although very little in terms of orchestral drums or percussion; you will need to look elsewhere for that) and a good selection of performance articulations. An impressively large collection of global presets provides some great starting points, and a powerful tag‑based browser lets you search both global presets and individual sounds. The global presets perhaps favour the more cinematic/sound‑designed possibilities (if you want traditional orchestral sounds only, you might have to bypass some of the sound‑design options) but, conventional or processed, there are some excellent sounds to be had here.
In terms of the performance features to assist any orchestration efforts, each of the four individual sounds in a Symphonic AI preset have their own step‑sequencer/arpeggiator system. These go somewhat further than those found in The Orchestra Complete 2 as they offer both sound modulation options as well as rhythmic/melodic features. It’s powerful stuff, and the global presets contain plenty of excellent and inspiring examples to ease you into the process of creating your own.
If you want to go big with your assisted full orchestral music creation, perhaps the top of the tree is EastWest’s Hollywood Orchestra Opus Edition. Dave Stewart provided a review of this as recently as July 2021 (https://sosm.ag/ew-hooe). In its full version, HOOE runs to over 900GB of samples (yes, it’s big!) and provides comprehensive options across all four orchestral sections. Also on the ‘big’ front, HOOE comes with a suitably hefty one‑off purchase price tag (although EastWest’s Composer Cloud+ provides a very affordable alternative for those comfortable with subscription systems). To get the best out of the library, you might also need to think big in terms of your computer host.
All that said, in terms of assisted orchestral writing, this is perhaps the current cream of the crop. The key element is the Hollywood Orchestrator component. If you have made it this far, you might not be surprised to hear that Orchestrator was developed in conjunction with Sonuscore. It delivers a very powerful combination of the sorts of technologies found in The Orchestra Complete 2 and Action Strings 2. At one level, it is almost like running four separate instances of The Orchestra Complete — one dedicated to each orchestral section — but all fully integrated, simultaneously responding to a single MIDI input, and with more comprehensive pattern/MIDI sequence editing features. The huge collection of included Orchestrator presets — organised into categories of Ensembles, Ostinatos and Scores (plus a User category for your own creations) — is undeniably impressive. If you want to unleash your inner Hollywood composer, load a Score preset, close your eyes, and play a MIDI chord. The engine will then distribute the notes you play across all the orchestral sections; it’s not far removed from actual magic. If your budget and host computer are up to the task, and you want the most powerful orchestral assistant currently available, this is it.
As with the strings and drum/percussion topics earlier, I’ve put together a number of audio examples to demonstrate the sorts of things that are possible with each of The Orchestra Complete 2, Symphonic AI and Hollywood Orchestra Opus Edition.
If you want to unleash your inner Hollywood composer, load a Score preset, close your eyes, and play a MIDI chord. The engine will then distribute the notes you play across all the orchestral sections; it’s not far removed from actual magic.
This whistle‑stop tour of some of the most popular ‘fake it till you make it’ orchestral virtual instruments does raise some obvious discussion points and it’s worth briefly airing these by way of conclusion.
- First, while there are some reasonably accessible starting points, and a ladder to climb as your ambitions grow, faking orchestration skills doesn’t come free. That said, hiring a trained orchestral arranger, or signing up for an orchestration class, will also have costs.
- Second, many of these tools may also serve an educational role and, whether you notice it or not, eventually, you are likely to absorb some of their ‘assistance’. This is particularly true of products such as Actions Strings 2, The Orchestra Complete 2 and Hollywood Orchestrator; use any of these products for an extended period and you may find yourself slowly chipping away at your imposter syndrome.
- Third — and perhaps most thorny — is the moral issue: should composers/producers be using these technology‑based solutions to compensate for skills they simply don’t have? This is, of course, a question that’s broader than just writing orchestral arrangements. Whether it’s virtual drummers, bassist, guitarists, pianists, singers who can sing in tune, or software that generates chord and melody sequences for you, technology has been fixing performance and compositional skill gaps for a long time; writing for the orchestra is just one further example.
I’ll leave you to decide on your own position on this question (while reminding you of the Internet meme in which foregoing the use of drum loops eventually leads to a career in goat farming) but, whatever your stance, the ‘technology replaces skill’ genie is well and truly out of the bottle. If you are prepared to embrace that fact, creating polished orchestral elements within your own music is perfectly achievable, even to those who know their orchestration skill set is (to put it politely) very much a work in progress.