The Virtual Ensemble Takes Shape
When you watch a performance by an ensemble of any size, you do tend to become used to instrument positioning - violin on the left, cello on the right, piano positioned depending on the size of the group and the stage setup. With a larger number of musicians, you might consider a percussion section, with tympanist towards the rear on the right (I'm still talking about the audience's perception), violas slightly off centre to the right, and so on.
Creating your virtual ensemble when you are composing on a computer will mean that these instrument positions should be considered if you are aiming for a level of realism, or familiarity, in your final product.
So what are the factors involved in a listener’s perception of a musical group?
When you have a number of tracks recorded for your trio, quartet, etcetera, you can then utilise the features of the DAW mixer that can achieve this realism. The pan pot that we talked about previously can give you stereo positioning of your musicians - select your violinist and pan the track to the left around 45 degrees. Do the same with your cellist, except make it 45 degrees to the right. Your piano should stay in the centre for a small ensemble. Woodwind and brass are generally sitting further back in a larger group, and this can be achieved several ways - the simplest way is to turn the volume fader down on an instrument that is further away from you, the listener. Genius!
So, panning and volume can give you the layout of your entire orchestra.
To add further realism to your overall sound, you can add a virtual auditorium or concert hall to your production. Reverberation or reverb is the collection of reflections or echoes that occur in a large space, and all of the current DAWs available offer some form of simulated room space in the form of a reverb plugin. When you are working with reverb, you can apply it two ways: you can insert it on an instrument channel, which means it is only used by that instrument, or my preferred method, which is to set it up on a buss or FX channel. This method means that you can use the reverb on every instrument in your mix, which means providing more positioning information to your musicians. If you apply more reverb it sounds like the instrument is further away, less reverb it sounds closer.
Most modern reverb plugins use a method known as convolution to simulate the size of a room, which basically means that someone has taken a sampling of the reverb in a particular space (yes, you can obtain impulse responses from famous auditoriums and cathedrals from around the world), so you can recreate very specific environments for your mix.
This is an important aspect in the overall sound, as different performance spaces can change the tone of a performance quite dramatically. The stone of an old church will have a very different reflective quality to a modern glass and tile restaurant that has put more detail into the visual aesthetic, rather than the aural.
When working with reverb, experiment as much as possible, and be subtle.