Founded in 1945 by EMI producer Walter Legge, London’s Philharmonia Orchestra is world-renowned for its musical achievements, but what you may not know is that it also has an impressive web site which provides many tools that may be of interest to recording musicians. These include a free-to-download sound library and an archive of informative videos that I’ll get onto in a moment. The site also highlights the orchestra’s other educational activities, which have resulted in an iPad app (of which more later) and a range of projects involving schools and performance venues.
Perhaps of most interest to SOS readers, from a research point of view, is the sizeable film archive, which is also available on Vimeo and YouTube and via a series of podcasts. The films include guides to iconic pieces of music, interviews with eminent conductors and composers, behind-the-scenes documentaries following the orchestra’s activitie, and ‘instrument guides’.
These instrument guides, most of which are several minutes long, will benefit musicians who use orchestral sound libraries and want to learn more about the qualities of certain instruments. Generally the films involve the musicians enthusiastically introducing their instrument, playing it and explaining how it fits into the orchestral palette. Everything from bassoon to timpani is covered, but so too are some slightly more unexpected instruments, like the tabla, sarod and celeste.
The guides also introduce two very rare experimental instruments, the most interesting being the Ondes Martenot, which dates from the 1930s and was invented by French cellist and telegrapher Maurice Martenot (you can also read more about that instrument on the SOS web site at https://sosm.ag/ondes-martenot).The other experimental instrument is the rare piano luthéal, which, in brief, is a piano with stops for changing the sound and harmonics for different sections of the keyboard.
The biggest surprise the web site has to offer, though, is its free sample library. This comprises thousands of samples of recordings of Philharmonia’s own players in Abbey Road’s Studio 2. The site visitor is given a menu of instruments to choose from followed by a choice to either download individual samples or a ZIP file of all the samples from the selected instrument. Usefully, the database displays the pitch, duration, dynamic (forte, piano, fortissimo, mezzo piano, pianissimo and so on) and articulation of each sample.
According to the Philharmonia’s Digital Director Luke Ritchie, the library dates back over a decade and was created for an educational web site called The Sound Exchange. For a time, the site was sponsored by BT who helped develop a free sample sequencer, but the Philharmonia found that most people preferred to load the files into their own software, so updates ceased.
Although the samples sound pretty good, they’re presently only available as MP3 files, no doubt because downloading large amounts of data was rather difficult some years back. But now those kind of issues are gone, Luke and his team are planning to update the library.
“Obviously people want a really top-quality sample library, but maybe we’ll present it in a more creative way, like having all the stems from a multitrack recording of a piece,” says Ritchie. “We are thinking about how can we develop and improve it and welcome feedback from musicians and composers.
“The main reason we do all of this is to connect to a wider audience, because classical music suffers from the stereotypical image of being stuffy and for an older generation. A lot of our technology is about opening it up to new audiences. We are funded by the Arts Council and part of our remit is to nurture interest in classical music.”
Another tool the Philharmonia are using to develop their audience is an iPad app called, simply, The Orchestra. This isn’t free like the sample library (the app retails for £10.49), but it has proved popular with schools. It features some of the films from the web site plus sections from eight performances of major classical pieces. Each piece has a synchronised graphical score, text notes providing information about the composers, instruments and music, plus a choice of audio or subtitle commentaries from the conductor and players.
Now that so many of us are working with virtual orchestral instruments as part of our sound palette, the seemingly altruistic resources provided by the Philharmonia are very welcome. None of us can be an authority on every instrument, so there’s a lot of value in being able to quickly seek out the words of an expert. Yes, the sample library needs to be updated — and it will be — but even in its current form it is a very useful resource for music makers. All in all, this web site is well worth a look! Tom Flint
Online resources are free. The Orchestra (iPad app) £10.49 including VAT.
Online resources are free. The Orchestra (iPad App) £10.49 (about $16).