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Q. What gear and software do I need for sample-based soundtracks?

If you plan on making heavy use of virtual and sampled instruments, you'll probably want plenty of RAM — or at least to ensure your PC's motherboard will allow you to add more when it's required.If you plan on making heavy use of virtual and sampled instruments, you'll probably want plenty of RAM — or at least to ensure your PC's motherboard will allow you to add more when it's required.

I will be retiring early next year and will be looking to spend more time writing soundtrack-based music (think Hans Zimmer). It's purely amateur, but I should have some cash to splash next year. I'm currently PC-based and use Cubase. I'm looking for advice as to what I should be considering as my next move, to give me the 'oomph' for creating music that uses the best sample libraries for orchestra. I have decent (Equator Audio) monitors and would like to stick with them. Please let me know of any SOS articles I should be reading. Also, do you believe that Cubase utilises the full power of a PC? I'm just wondering if software keeps up with the changes in processing power.

Alan Weston

SOS Reviews Editor Matt Houghton replies: Vienna and Spitfire are the first two brands of sample-based orchestral instruments that spring to mind. Both make excellent libraries, but there are plenty of others to choose from, and most top-flight composers seem to pick and choose — they might have a favourite legato string library from one manufacturer, solo violin from another, brass from another, and so on. At the time of writing, Spitfire are offering a basic orchestral library for free (if you can be bothered to wait two weeks; the regular price is only £49) — www.spitfireaudio.com/shop/a-z/bbc-symphony-orchestra-discover— so if that's still available you might want to check it out, and the same company also offer some more experimental sounds for free in their 'Labs' range. There's also the EastWest Composer Cloud to consider — again, high-quality stuff, but the subscription-based model means a lower up-front cost (though the costs can mount over time). Also worth noting is that many other commercial libraries rely on NI's Kontakt sampler as a host.

Cubase is a great DAW for composing. There are some unique tools in Cubase Pro that other DAWs (except Nuendo) lack. Does it keep up with increases in processing power? Yes, though if you're on an old version I'd consider upgrading. Most DAWs used to have limits on the number of CPU cores/threads they could address, and we've seen processor core counts increase significantly in recent years; the latest versions of DAWs may make better use of them.

In terms of SOS articles, start with Dave Stewart's multi-part series 'The Sampled Orchestra', which talks about how to use virtual instruments effectively, but also recommends which ones are good. Here's a link to Part 1 — www.soundonsound.com/techniques/sampled-orchestra-part1 — and you'll find the other eight parts via links on that page. Dave has also written other good pieces on the subject, and reviewed countless sample libraries. Search for him on the SOS site — www.soundonsound.com/author/dave-stewart— and you'll find plenty of inspiration.

You might also find Tristan Noon's 'From DAW To Score' article — www.soundonsound.com/techniques/daw-score — useful. Tristan is an orchestrator who specialises in preparing scores based on composers' sample-based mock-ups, and if you plan on involving real musicians, his advice could prove really helpful.

Ideally, you'd use solid-state drives, not only for the OS and Cubase but, separately, for the sample libraries, as this improves loading times.

It's hard to be definitive about computer specs, but high-quality sample-based instruments generally require plenty of RAM. Taking this sort of music to a commercial level of quality will require a decent modern machine with at least 32GB of RAM, and preferably more. Ideally, you'd use solid-state drives, not only for the OS and Cubase but, separately, for the sample libraries too, as this improves loading times no end.

On the subject of loading times, if you plan on writing many cues using the same instruments — such as an orchestra — it might be helpful to run two separate sequencers, one to write the music and the other to host the instruments, as described in Nick Storr's November 2015 Reaper workshop — www.soundonsound.com/techniques/reaper-go — because this means you can open and close as many projects as you like for your cues without unloading and reloading the whole orchestra. The other thing you can do is load template projects with all your instruments disabled, so as not to have to load or take up any resources until you actually need them.

My Core-i9 9900K-based PC (made by Scan UK) cost about £1500 and can handle this sort of job reasonably well, but I'd probably add more RAM if I did a lot of this sort of work. There's a feature elsewhere in this issue comparing the performance of the latest Intel and AMD CPUs, so that's worth checking out. You can get by with a lower-spec or older machine, though, and a good composition and arrangement is more important than running the latest, hungriest sample library — it's all a question of what workflow compromises you're prepared to accept. So you'll need to do more research, but I hope this helps you get started.

Published August 2020