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Q. How should I treat my sample-library orchestral parts?

Published June 2012

I use a lot of orchestral parts (EastWest Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra) in my contemporary songs, and I was wondering whether I should mix them in precisely the same way as the other tracks in my arrangement (in other words, mix and EQ each instrument of the orchestra separately on its own separate track), or whether I should treat them as an ensemble to try and maintain some sort of sonic integrity? Also, is there any reason to be precious about using stereo samples and/or the natural reverb that is supplied via the stage/surround mics? Or will dry tracks plus a good‑quality plug‑in reverb do just as well? And how closely should I stick to the standard orchestra layout in terms of panning? I realise these are partly subjective decisions, but I just wondered whether there might be any technical arguments that would help me make a start. East West Symphonic Orchestra.

Garfield Mayor via email

SOS contributor Mike Senior replies: The main technical consideration to bear in mind is that samples designed for creating orchestral scores (such as the EastWest Quantum Leap library) aren't really intended to be layered in the background of a chart production. As such, they're likely to have more low end than you need, bringing with it a risk of overall tonal muddiness and/or not enough high‑end sizzle to compete with pop‑style sounds, which are often brighter and more aggressive. That isn't a deal‑breaker, though, because it's mostly just a question of not being shy with the EQ if you need to reshape them into the context of your specific mix, much as you would any other track in your production. You might also want to use a little more compression than you'd typically expect in scoring work, because classical parts tend to have a dynamic range that's wider than can be accommodated in most chart work.

As far as panning is concerned, you could simply leave it as it's presented by default in the library itself, reflecting the natural placement of the instruments within the orchestra, but there are also a lot of good reasons why you might want to deviate from this standard setup on occasion. For example, if a bass instrument (whether melodic or percussive) is making an important low‑end contribution to the mix, there's a good argument for centring it for the purposes of playback on smaller stereo systems, as this will tend to maximise their low‑frequency playback efficiency. Also, if there's any important melody being carried by a single orchestral instrument/section, you may wish to centre that also, much as you might a guitar solo, to focus the listener's attention on it and help it to translate strongly for anyone listening in mono or on one side of a pair of shared earbuds. In my opinion, only about one listener in a hundred is likely to give a tinker's cuss about whether the panning is in any way 'real', they just want to be able to hear the music!

I would qualify that, however, by saying that you will almost certainly want a reasonable width out of the orchestral picture nonetheless, because the normal purpose of orchestral instruments in chart tracks is to make the sound more expansive. For this reason, I probably would use the stereo samples, if possible, because they'll give a richer and slightly more diffuse and enveloping sound in stereo.

If the EastWest Quantum Leap reverb/room tracks are placing undue strain on your computer, I wouldn't think twice about ditching them and replacing them with plug‑in reverb. It's not some kind of purist classical situation, so you can afford to cut some corners in the name of convenience. In fact, you may find that being able to EQ (and maybe even gate) the orchestral reverb plug‑in's return channel may help a good deal to avoid mix clutter. It does probably make sense to try to make the whole ensemble sound like it belongs together most of the time (and shared reverb effects will help there), simply because that's what most people are expecting. But if that conflicts with the needs of the balance, don't be afraid of treating some individual instruments to separate them from the group, especially where there are important instrumental solos. In fact, you'll hear this happening in a lot of film/TV scores if you listen out for it, as well as some very odd balances; a low‑register flute note audible against trombones, for instance, or harps right up front amidst an orchestra in full tantrum mode.