A glorious suite of extras bolsters the core orchestral sound.
While the four main instrument families (strings, woodwind, brass and percussion) are sufficient to cover the meat and potatoes of an orchestral arrangement, there remain several extra sonorities which will add colour, drama and intensity to a score. The most important of these is the harp, an indispensable symphonic accessory which has been an integral part of the orchestra since the mid-19th Century, either as a solo instrument or in a group with one or more others.
For broad classification purposes the harp is sometimes lumped in with the strings, but it really occupies a category of its own. A concert harp (or ‘pedal harp’) is about six feet tall and resembles the frame of a grand piano stood on end, with a roughly triangular shape, a distinctive curved top and 47 strings which are laid out vertically and diminish in length as they ascend in pitch over a six-and-a-half octave range.
Harp strings are plucked with the fingers, with the hands positioned either side of the strings: as with the piano, the right hand plays the higher notes while the left hand tackles the bass end. The instrument is tuned to a major scale, which, as SOS readers know, consists of only seven notes; early harps were limited to this tuning, but as musical composition evolved in the late Renaissance period, efforts were made to turn the harp into a chromatic instrument (one which can be played in any key). A major breakthrough occurred in 1820, when a French piano maker invented a foot pedal mechanism which allowed the pitch of the strings to be altered quickly.
Today’s sample collections offer a range of great-sounding concert harps that have been chromatically recorded at multiple dynamics across their full range — a list of such libraries appears below. To see the harp in action, check out Ruth Holden of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s demonstration at www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2Xdb1ljd3g.
The straight plucked harp articulation is a delightful orchestral colour. More delicate than a piano, its plump attack and resonant, lingering sustain are well suited to quiet lyrical passages, and can also be a good source of light rhythmic ostinato figures, an example of which is shown in Diagram 1. Written for a film cue using two sampled harps, this repeated 6/4 phrase provides a light, rocking motion, which keeps the music moving without being obtrusive. The harmony is kept deliberately simple and open, allowing a sad, ascending strings chord sequence to unfold on top. Note that the last note of the bar alternates between G and F, the latter introducing a D minor feel over the A pedal note.
When programming single notes and chords on a sampled harp, you can play the instrument more or less like a piano, with one proviso; the real instrument has no sustain pedal, so notes ring on indefinitely unless hand-damped by the player. This has led some manufacturers to build an excessive amount of decay into their sampled harp patches, making pianistic playing impossible. In most cases you can remedy this by reducing the patch’s ‘release’ setting so that notes die away more quickly, then using your keyboard’s sustain pedal to make notes overhang as desired; you can then play the instrument in a pianistic style, as I did when programming the part shown in Diagram 2.
Despite its delicate reputation, the harp is magnificently sonorous, to the extent where its bass notes can be almost overpowering. For a bit of ‘harp metal’, check out the front of Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars, The Bringer Of War’ from The Planets suite — as mentioned in last month’s article, this opens with a quiet, menacing 5/4 bass riff played by a single timpani, two harps and low-register strings. By means of the simple orchestration trick shown in Diagram 3, Holst contrives to have his harpists playing the riff in octaves. Add a high-gain amp-simulator plug-in, and you’d be well into Djent territory!
At the more peaceable end of the musical spectrum, harp harmonics are a delectable sonority produced by simultaneously lightly touching and plucking the string at its halfway point. This style is used to beautiful effect in ‘Saturn, The Bringer Of Old Age’, another movement of The Planets. Diagram 4 shows the two harp harmonic parts, played in the key of E over a slow, swelling oceanic strings bass line based on G#, C#, D# and F#.
Other subtle harp articulations found in sample libraries include the bisbigliando tremolo effect — played with two hands, either with single repeated notes or chords, it creates a pleasant, mandolin-like murmuring. Pres de la table (played close to the soundboard) performances make a somewhat more nasal, acoustic guitar-like sound, while plucking with the fingernails gives a harder, more metallic attack.
A very common usage of the harp is chordal playing, often utilising the ‘broken chord’ arpeggio style shown in Diagram 2 (in fact, ‘arpeggio’ comes from the Italian word meaning ‘to play like a harp’). Harp players don’t use their little fingers, so to sound totally authentic, chords should contain no more than eight notes, and notes should be placed reasonably close together to emulate the player’s hand span. For the same reason, harp arpeggios are usually played as groups of four notes. However, authenticity isn’t everything: if you want to write a 10-note chord for your sampled harp, be my guest!
The harp glissando (a fast sweep up and down the strings) is a unique and highly colourful style which has been liberally employed by composers down the ages (and no doubt will continue to be so in future, as it shows no signs of going out of fashion!) Read the ‘Masterclass Tip: Custom Harp Glissandi’ box for notes on creating your own classic harp glissando flourishes.
Moving on to orchestral keyboards, the celeste (also known as the celesta) resembles a small upright piano, has a sustain pedal like a piano and is usually played in orchestral works by a pianist. Despite all that, it’s often included in the percussion section of orchestral libraries, due to the fact that its hammers strike metal chime bars rather than strings. As the name suggests, it has a heavenly, magical sound which evokes the chiming of high-pitched ethereal bells — hence its usage in the most famous celeste piece of all time, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy’ from The Nutcracker ballet.
Not to be confused with the harder-sounding glockenspiel, the celeste adds a silvery, twinkling edge to melodies and can also be used for light rhythmic ostinatos. It sounds particularly effective playing arpeggiated chords like those shown in Diagram 5, and its wide range makes it a good, unusual choice for song accompaniment — those who read my recent review of Spectrasonics’ Keyscape collection (https://sosm.ag/spectrasonics-keyscape) may recall me raving about Jacob Collier playing the instrument to beautiful effect at the August 2016 Quincy Jones BBC Prom.
Of all the instruments covered in this series, the piano probably needs the least explanation. Since its invention 300 years ago, it has evolved into one of the most expressive, versatile and dynamic instruments on the planet, permeating all areas of musical culture from ragtime, jazz, pop, and rock to classical. The piano’s main selling point is implicit in its full title: ‘pianoforte’ (literally ‘soft-loud’), a reference to its vast dynamic and tonal range. That, coupled with its seven-octave range and grand, expansive sound, makes it an ideal compositional tool. It’s salutary to reflect that major symphonic works such as Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring were written on piano, as were many of our best-loved popular songs down the ages.
The piano’s role in the orchestra is part-time — while many composers have written piano concertos (which traditionally feature orchestral accompaniment), there are a greater number of works which don’t require the instrument. Considered to be both a stringed and percussion instrument, the sound of the piano speaks for itself: its lyrical side shines through in works as diverse as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and Keith Jarrett Trio’s I Fall in Love Too Easily, while its percussive rhythmic potential is evident in Bartók’s Piano Sonata Sz. 80 and Three Etudes op. 18.
A good example of piano as rhythm instrument occurs in Stravinsky’s ‘Scherzo À La Russe’. Diagram 6 shows a short extract: in these rhythm patterns, the harp plays fast alternating low and high notes spaced an octave or a ninth apart, while the piano doubles the part with the right-hand off-beats played in octaves. Played on a keyboard, the parts feel like drumming, and the combination of the two instruments provides great propulsive momentum. Further motoring piano rhythms can be heard in Yuja Wang’s breathtaking performance of the ‘Russian Dance’ from Stravinsky’s Petrushka. You can watch it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DD77HzhRB4.
The standard concert grand piano has 88 keys; smaller upright models are increasingly popular with sample library manufacturers, but for orchestral work you really need the large instrument. Space does not permit a listing of the sampled pianos currently on the market — suffice it to say that, due to the large numbers of velocity layers and round-robins built into these products nowadays, their quality is generally high across the board. That means that choosing the right sampled piano is now less of a technical issue and more a question of personal taste as to piano make, recording environment and microphone placement. Fortunately, today’s detailed online walkthroughs take much of the guesswork out of choosing a product.
For compositions of a left-field or experimental nature, I recommend you listen to ‘prepared piano’ samples, which can be an inspirational source for unusual-sounding, quasi-industrial rhythm patterns.
Due to its appearance in the soundtrack of the film Interstellar, the pipe organ has recently emerged into the media spotlight. The instrument in question resides in the 12th Century Temple Church, London, and given the movie’s end-of-the-world subject matter, it’s easy to see why it appealed to composer Hans Zimmer (never one to shy away from making a huge racket): according to the church’s organist and director of music Roger Sayer, “This organ has got body and bass. We have three 32-foot-length pipes and if you combine those with the 16-foot stops, it’s amazing. It shakes the church, too, not just the cinema.”
Dubbed “the monster that never breathes” by a sceptical Stravinsky, this ecclesiastical, air-driven beast produces its sound through sets of pipes of different lengths — the aforementioned 32-foot and 16-foot types are reserved for the deepest bass notes, while higher pitches are carried by eight-, four- and two-foot pipes. The organ’s large repertoire of tonal colours (which rejoice under intriguing names such as bourdon, diapason, dulciana, double ophicleide, claribel flute, quint, mixture, vox angelica and orchestral hautboy) are selected by the player pulling out controls called ‘stops’ (as in the expression “I’m pulling out all the stops to get this article finished”).
Pipe organs are occasionally featured in orchestral works to heighten drama (as in ‘Mars’ from The Planets), and invariably, in Gothic horror movies to emphasise diabolical, infernal and hellish on-screen arisings. Though not an instrument you can sling in the back of a van and take out on the road, this massive ‘king of the keyboards’ is fantastically versatile, producing anything from a full-throated, apocalyptic steely roar to the soft, innocent breathy tone and ‘chiffy’ attack of flutey, wooden-pipe stops.
Avid orchestral-sample collectors will occasionally stumble upon the harpsichord (aka cembalo), the late 16th Century precursor of the piano. Rather than hammers, this keyboard uses small plectrum-like quills to pluck its strings, making a sound not unlike a steel-stringed guitar. Larger models have two keyboard manuals and two or three strings for each note, enriching and amplifying the tone. The biggest sound is obtained when pairs of strings are tuned an octave apart (as in a 12-string guitar), transforming the delicate pluck into a big, crashing, regal noise which sweeps all before it. Unlike the piano, the instrument is dynamically unvarying, but it has enormous historical resonance and its strong, stately and elegant sound, heard on a number of famous 1960s TV themes, may be due a revival.
Though decidedly non-orchestral, the harmonium is worth a mention not only because of its adoption as an esoteric pop keyboard (dating back to The Beatles’ ‘We Can Work It Out’), but due to its appearance in some orchestral sample collections. Also known as the pump organ and reed organ, its wheezy, friendly tone is generated by bellows blowing air past a vibrating thin metal reed, powered by the performer constantly pumping a pair of pedals. I played a harmonium on a pop session in 2003, and my legs are still aching. On the plus side, the instrument offers a variety of stops, and sampled versions can make a very agreeable pad sound.
It’s fair to say that the classical establishment has never been entirely comfortable with electronic instruments (or indeed, in some cases, with the very idea of sound coming out of a speaker). That said, it’s now generally accepted by traditionalists that the Ondes Martenot, invented in 1928, is finally fit to be accepted into the orchestra’s ranks. This is largely due to the efforts of composers Olivier Messiaen (who famously featured it in his monumental Turangalîla-Symphonie) and Edgar Varèse, who used it to replace two theremins in his work Ecuatorial. You can see the Ondes Martenot demonstrated by Thomas Bloch at www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0aflcF0-ys, and by Cynthia Millar at www.youtube.com/watch?v=yidV0HeVyCg. The fabulously expressive, voice-like sound of this early synthesizer is captured in detail by Soniccouture’s Ondes virtual instrument, reviewed by Nick Magnus in SOS July 2011.
It would seem that if you’re in the business of writing epic trailer music, an absolutely essential orchestral add-on is a choir. The first choral sample libraries focussed on large men’s and women’s choirs singing sustained vowels and a few consonants such as ‘mm’ and ‘zz’, along with glissando and cluster effects. Then Eric Persing of Spectrasonics had the bright idea of sampling a boys’ choir and Gregorian men’s choir chanting Latin phrases, and a genre was born which persists to the present day. Project studios now resonate to the glorious sound of ‘alleluia’, ‘miserere mei’, ‘sanctus’ and ‘amen’, no doubt leading long-suffering neighbours to believe that the composer next door is a devout Christian.
A breakthrough in choral sampling occurred in 2005, when EastWest/Quantum Leap Symphonic Choirs library’s revolutionary ‘Word Builder’ software enabled users to type in words for the choirs to sing, using an internal phonetic language the makers christened VoTox. Several companies followed suit, and it’s now common to find word- and phrase-building tools included in choir libraries. Unreleased at the time of writing, EastWest’s new Hollywood Choirs collection looks set to expand the word-building concept, claiming to make it possible for the choirs to sing any words in any language — personally I hope they include Cockney, which would be a great asset for my new Chas & Dave Sing The Classics tribute album.
When programming choir parts, it’s useful to be aware of singers’ ranges, which are depicted in Diagram 8. Adult voices fall into the four broad categories soprano, alto, tenor and bass, referred to as SATB. (Children’s voices generally occupy the soprano register, though with a somewhat restricted range.) The SATB format is standard in classical and church choirs, with women tackling the soprano and alto parts and the tenor and bass range covered by men: it’s worth remembering that for the most part, women naturally sing an octave higher than men, so when a mixed-voice choir sings a unison phrase, what you hear is in octaves — an essential factor in creating the familiar, big, stirring full-frequency choral sound.
Contemporary choir libraries are listed in the ‘Choir Sample Libraries’ box. Some now benefit from legato interval sampling, which enables the notes of a melody line to flow together smoothly. This, along with advances in phrase-building, theoretically brings the construction of ‘virtual lyrics’ a step closer, but we shouldn’t get carried away; in choral music it’s hard to pick out the lyrics at the best of times, so as long as your syllabic constructions give the impression of words being sung, you’re probably doing OK!
Back in the day, JS Bach helped to revolutionise musical composition by writing the Well-Tempered Clavier, the first collection of fully worked keyboard pieces in all 24 keys (12 major and 12 minor). This led to the adoption of equal temperament, the standard modern keyboard tuning in which the octave is divided into 12 equal semitone steps, making it possible to play music in any key with acceptable results. Thus, modern harmony was born.
Bach used several types of keyboard for his compositions, including organ, harpsichord, clavichord and an instrument called a lute-harpsichord, which sounds not unlike a modern clavinet (as heard on Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’). He was involved in the development of the pianoforte, and no doubt would have gone on to play the instrument had its design been realised in his lifetime. If he were alive now, I’m sure Bach would be fascinated by today’s electronic keyboard marvels — I’d guess he’d also appreciate being able to compose on a sampled pipe organ in the comfort of his own home, rather than having to walk across town to a draughty old church every day!
The point is, you can make great music regardless of what instrument you play. You don’t need an expensive sample collection: a music student I know recently played me a thoroughly convincing and interesting orchestral composition created entirely with low-budget Kontakt instruments. We should be grateful for the enormous convenience afforded by today’s excellent virtual instruments and sample libraries, but now as in Bach’s time, it’s the musical thinking and creativity that counts.
This series concludes next month with an examination of orchestral instrument combinations and effects. Thanks for reading!
This selection of stand-alone choir and solo voice libraries focusses on Western classical tradition and excludes world music, gospel and pop/rock collections. Also omitted are predominantly phrase-based libraries, vocal effects, vocal synths, Mellotron samples and so-called ‘voices of elves’ (nothing against elves, but you have to draw the line somewhere). Though only available in the historic Akai/Roland CD-ROM format, Spectrasonics’ legacy product Symphony Of Voices gets an honorary mention by virtue of its high musical quality.
The orchestral collections Metropolis Ark 1, Metropolis Ark 2, East West / Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra and Garritan Personal Orchestra 5 also include choirs in their instrumentation.
CHOIRS & SOLO VOICES
East West/Quantum Leap www.soundsonline.com
- EWQL Symphonic Choirs  40GB
- EWQL Hollywood Choirs (newly announced but will be available by the time you read this)
Vienna Symphonic Library www.vsl.co.at
- Vienna Choir  29.1GB
- Vienna Solo Voices  32.7GB
- Voxos 2  29GB
- Requiem Light TH  4.72GB
- Mars Symphonic Men’s Choir  17.9GB
- Venus Symphonic Women’s Choir  26.7GB
- Mercury Symphonic Boys’ Choir  15.5GB
- Requiem Professional TH  14.5GB
- Liberis Angelic Choir TH  7.2GB
- Insolidus Choir  37.2GB
- Lacrimosa Epic Choir  17.8GB
- Studio Sopranos  unpublished
Strezov Sampling www.strezov-sampling
- Storm Choir 2  115GB
- Arva Childrens Choir  14GB
- Freyja Female Choir  15GB
- Wotan Male Choir  5GB
Fluffy Audio www.fluffyaudio.com
- Dominus Choir  30GB
- Voices of Prague  13GB
- Soloists of Prague  7GB
- Czech Boys’ Choir  18GB
Vir2 Instruments www.vir2.com
- Aeris: Hybrid Choir Designer  10GB
Best Service www.bestservice.com
- Cantus  2.8GB
- Mystica  5GB
Performance Samples www.performancesamples.com
- Oceania  2.1GB
Bela D Media www.timespace.com
- Giovani Revive  0.59GB
- V Alto Choir  0.22GB
- Phantom Voice  0.22GB
- Diva Revamp  0.38GB
- Symphony Of Voices ~  2GB
TH - Formerly Tonehammer.
~ Akai/Roland format legacy product.
Here’s a useful tip from songwriter/TV composer Simon Darlow: “If I need a harp glissando, I use a regular harp program and do a quick sweep up the keyboard on the white notes — then I edit the notes to be the right pitches for the music. It takes a little while, but it’s so much quicker than going through all my samples looking for a harp glissando in the right key.” Since sampled harp glissandi are often mislabelled and their timing rarely fits perfectly in a track, I heartily endorse Simon’s method: you can execute an upward glissando by quickly sweeping the back of your middle or index finger over the keys, turning the hand to perform a change of direction if required.
Simple examples of this technique are shown above. Example 1 shows a two-octave ascending white-note glissando which starts on the note of C4 and ends on C6. To adapt this scale to C minor, you can flatten all the E, A and B notes to Eb, Ab and Bb, as shown in Example 2. So far so good, but what to do if the scale you need uses fewer than seven notes? Whether on the real instrument or on a keyboard, it’s not practical to skip over selected notes when performing a rapid sweep, so in order to make your played glissandos sound 100-percent authentic, you can follow harp players’ example and duplicate certain notes.
Example 3 shows a major pentatonic glissando (the classic ‘heavenly’ harp flourish) adapted from the original white-note major scale of C, D, E, F, G, A and B. The original played notes of F and B have been respectively flattened and sharpened by a semitone to sound as E and C. Similarly, a harp whole-tone glissando (traditionally used by composers to suggest eerie goings-on) can be created by sharpening the Fs to F# and flattening the Gs, As and Bs, giving a scale of C, D, E, F#, G# and A#, as shown in Example 4. This duplication of pitches exactly replicates the sound of a real harp glissando, in which the player will use the instrument’s foot pedals to globally flatten or sharpen selected notes.
The following list of stand-alone harp sample libraries features full-scale concert harps for use in an orchestral context, not to be confused with Celtic or other folk harps. In addition, several full orchestral collections (not listed) include harps in their instrumentation: contemporary examples include Orchestral Tools’ Symphonic Sphere and Metropolis Ark 2, and 8Dio’s Acoustic Grand Ensembles Volume 2, the latter two of which feature four and six unison harps respectively.
As with previous lists in this series, the figures in square brackets indicate each library’s number of microphone positions excluding any mixes or processed versions, while the GB figure shows its total size in gigabytes once installed on your hard drive. Multiple mic positions automatically increase the sample count without adding extra performance content, so a large GB size doesn’t necessarily indicate a large articulation menu.
Vienna Symphonic Library www.vsl.co.at
- VSL Harps (contains two harps)  14.3GB
East West/Quantum Leap www.soundsonline.com
- EWQL Hollywood Harp Diamond *  15.3GB
Time + Space www.timespace.com
- EWQL Hollywood Harp Gold  2.1GB
Spitfire Audio www.spitfireaudio.com
- Skaila Kanga Harp  6.8GB
- Harp Swarm (nine unison harps)  10.5GB
- Cineharps (contains three harps)  12GB
- Elysium Harp  14.7GB
Chocolate Audio www.chocolateaudio.com
- Glissando Concert Harp  3.7GB
Orange Tree www.orangetreesamples.com
- Angelic Harp  2GB
Project SAM www.projectsam.com
- Concert Harp  1.3GB
- Garritan Harps (contains five harps)  4GB
* Hollywood Harp Diamond Edition is available as part of the Hollywood Solo Instruments collection, or may be bought separately by owners of the complete Hollywood Orchestra collection and East West Composer Cloud Plus subscribers.