Demystifying Music Technology: Diving In

Demystifying Music Technology: Diving In

Creating a virtual trio for composition

Christopher Steller
Melbourne, Australia

Demystifying Music Technology: Diving In

Creating a virtual trio for composition

I've been thinking about a piece involving acoustic instruments (which is not my regular direction), so in this article I'll focus on composing and realising a composition for myself (if that's okay with you).

I was inspired by a conversation with Stefan from Plexus, so I've decided to use piano, violin and clarinet as my virtual ensemble. The challenge will be to choose and blend the virtual instruments into a realistic performance of the composition, so that listeners will hear my intent without having to do too much explaining.

My working system is a MacBook Pro with a second screen, which allows me to have the arrange window and piano roll on the big screen, and the score on the MB screen. A nice layout for this type of work. My mini keyboard (KORG Microkey 37) and a mix controller (nanokontrol2) for adjusting individual volumes, and providing transport controls (start/stop/record), plus a basic audio interface and headphones, complete the setup.

When I begin any of my compositions, I like to have the basic instruments accurate from the outset, so that I can concentrate on the music - if something doesn't work in the mix, I can drop it and try an alternative. I’ve written the basic piano figure and allowed it to loop while I choose the right piano. I'm using Logic Pro on this occasion, and the piano selections are very good, but I prefer the UVI Plugsound Pro classical grand - it has a roundness and realism that sits well in a mix.

The violin from Plugsound Pro works very well in all playing styles, but their clarinet only works well in legato playing - the attack is too slow for quick arpeggios and trills. After investigating some more alternatives for the part, I decided on the Logic ’clarinet+' for the job - it has a better attack.

As a side note here, you will find that the more expansive orchestral sample libraries (e.g. Garritan or Miroslav Vitous) have a more elegant solution for the problem I am having. The libraries are usually very large, like 20-30 gigabytes of samples, because they are set up as layers for different playing styles, which are accessed via standard MIDI controllers. When you are emulating a violin part you can switch between a staccato, legato or pizzicato layer by adjusting the modulation wheel on your keyboard. When I want to switch to a pizzicato style I will need to set up a separate plugin preset - if you prefer the above alternative, be prepared for the cost involved.

With a modest sample library to choose from, I'll have to settle for the cost-effective way.

Now, back to the piece. I want to begin the piece with a constant, and I'm working in 6/4, so I'll rely on the piano to provide a repeating pattern that creates a rhythm and allows me to weave harmonies and fills with my other instruments. My violin and clarinet will alternate roles during the piece, providing melodies and rhythmic alternatives to the piano part.

As I said earlier, the violin can successfully alternate between staccato and legato parts, but I'm still having an issue with fast clarinet lines so I will need to adjust the attack of the sound in real-time so that my clarinet player can keep up.

In my next session, I'll begin building the parts and adding the alternate harmonies and fills. Stay tuned!