making your computer sound like a human

In the past two decades, there has been an enormous development in the area of computerized, electronic, MIDI, and synthesizer technology.  What used to take an entire instrument full of wired electronics and amplifiers can now be done by a small plug-in only a handful of megabytes in size.  A 100-piece orchestra can be reduced to a virtual instrument and programmed by one person using a MIDI keyboard.  These surges in processing power are fantastic tools when utilized properly; but can also degrade the quality of music if not harnessed in the correct way.  A Juilliard violinist grumbles under his breath every time a beautiful, soaring melody is ruined with a honky-sounding native string patch.  Like Uncle Ben told us, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Virtual instruments and synths can give the trained musician endless possibilities, however.  It is extremely impractical to attempt writing for an orchestra without having an orchestra at your disposal, or having performed frequently in one, or having the skills to play a piano reduction of an orchestration, or perhaps taken years of studies on orchestrating & arranging.  MIDI instruments and modern DAW software give one the ability to stack a piece of music, one instrument at a time, and slowly build a full composition that sounds as if it were played by 100 competent musicians in a beautiful concert hall. If utilized correctly by the composer, a digital piece of music can turn into a near-perfect draft to simulate live performance, or provide a sketch to a filmmaker or director.  In some cases, depending on the project, the digital arrangement is crafted in such a way that it becomes the final product. If you’re looking to write for this medium, or are just interested, or maybe looking for ways to justify a MIDI orchestra vs. live players, here are some tips we’ve picked up so far:

  • Treat your computer as if it were a live orchestra.   Picture the concert hall and stage in your head.  How many different instruments are there?  How many players are there on each instrument?  Where are they situated?  The first thing to do is add a proper reverb plug-in that will simulate the sound and feel of a real concert hall.  Two favorites among digital composers are Audio Ease’s Altiverb, and Waves TrueVerb.  Play around with parameters such as room size, pre-delay, dimensions, and early reflections.  Next, create as many different tracks as you need to represent the live players.  Maybe not 100+ right off the bat, but for example, 8 different violins instead of just 2, 4 violas, 2 cellos, etc. etc.
  • Even if 4 violins are playing the same melody, no human is perfect (even professional orchestral musicians), so they won’t play every note exactly in sync.  To achieve this realism, copy the same sections to all 4 violins, and nudge the notes slightly ahead or behind the original track.  Too much of a change will make it sound completely out of tempo, but just the right amount will make it sound like 4 actual performers playing the same line in unison.
  • Not every instrument sounds exactly the same, due to the way they are constructed and built.  This is especially true for brass instruments.  The majority of synths have a “sound” mod or otherwise that slightly changes the sound of the instrument.  Just like adjusting the note lengths, making each of your 4 French horns sound just a bit different will give you the impression of a live horn section, and not just 4 carbon copies of the same instrument.
  • Articulation is extremely important as well, especially in the orchestral world.  Say you’re a guitarist; you know the difference between strumming a full chord, fingerpicking, palm muting, etc.  Take some time to familiarize yourself with the articulations on other instruments, such as legato, staccato, sforzando, tremolo, and pizzicato.  They all have their own sound and their own placement in a piece of music.

Obviously, nothing can ever replace the emotion and intensity of a live orchestra.  But depending on your workflow or the type of project you’re working on, a digital piece of music can go a long way to get you the results you need. A good resource to dive into: “The Study of Orchestration” by Samuel Adler.

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