Demystifying Music Technology: The Virtual Ensemble

Demystifying Music Technology: The Virtual Ensemble

Demystifying Music Technology: The Virtual Ensemble

I recently read the article about composer Danny Elfman, linked from the Rehearsal Magazine website, and his approach to writing ’scary music’, and it prompted me to delve into the composing methods of some of the best known film score composers. It's a big step from where we might be as students of composition, but it gives us the opportunity to explore possible directions for the future.

In my first article I wrote about the concept of using your computer to realise your compositions: in this situation I'm referring to the ability to hear an approximation of your piece in a realistic context, using instrument samples.

Notation programs, Sibelius, Notion and Finale, are fantastic for visualising your scores in a presentable way, and these packages also come bundled with a library of instrument sounds sampled from various sources. When you've written several parts and selected appropriate sounds to hear them played back, you might begin to understand why the more prominent film composers use a professional digital audio workstation (DAW), such as Cubase, Logic, ProTools, etc to build their compositions, rather than a scoring program, as these tend to play the parts literally, rather than interpret as a musician would. The quality of the results also relies heavily on the choice of sample libraries they use.

When you start to listen and evaluate a library of sounds that has been bundled with a DAW, you'll choose favourite sounds that work immediately for you and usually discard the rest as soon as you can find better alternatives.

In 2015, one of my students (learning to use Steinberg Cubase), decided he wanted to turn a number of his piano compositions into a recording, which became an extended project for his learning path. He and I discussed the pieces he would work with, and decided to expand some of the pieces into arrangements with accompanying instruments such as cello, oboe, French horn, and some violin and viola, with an occasional tympani build.

I've worked with tracks in the past using string ensemble emulations, but never such an intimate ensemble, so it was quite a learning experience for me to hear the quality and realism (or lack thereof) of these sampled solo instruments. After many hours of auditioning sounds from my various hard drives, the majority of the arrangements were completed using instruments from my Plugsound Pro collection, created by a French company, UVI. Not up to the quality of some of the much more expensive libraries used by the professional film composers, but pleasing to the ear when used carefully.

Taking my research further, I visited quite a few websites of the ’big name’ orchestral sample libraries, and was amazed with what is now available. I'll leave the browsing to you, but here are a few Google references: Vienna Symphonic Library, Garritan, Spitfire Audio, Miroslav Vitous. I've also included some links at the end of the article. Many of the developers use Native Instruments Kontakt player plug-in as a playback device for their libraries, so they will be compatible with the major DAWs.

In researching Danny Elfman, his scoring credits include Alice in Wonderland, Batman, Batman Returns, Dark Shadows, Dick Tracy, Edward Scissorhands, Hulk, Men in Black, Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man, Mars Attacks, and Mission Impossible, as well as TV themes including the Simpsons and Desparate Housewives.

To realise his scores, Danny’s main sequencing machine is a Mac Pro computer running MOTUs Digital Performer DAW software. There are two slave PCs (Windows 7) each running Vienna Ensemble PRO as a host. All audio outputs of the PCs are routed via MADI to another Mac running Pro Tools. The majority of his orchestral library sounds are Vienna Instruments Collections with the Vienna Instruments PRO player. His assistant created some custom patches for a Lemur tablet that control some of Danny’s Vienna Instruments. Using the Lemur, Danny switches between different articulations, fades between vibrato/non vibrato patches, velocity crossfades and more.

Taking the whole virtual orchestra to its extremes, composer, Hans Zimmer, decided to get exactly what he wanted in a sample library by hiring the LSO, and directing them to play what he wanted to record. If you don't know Hans Zimmer's work, his credits are probably thrice the number of Danny Elfman's. Hans uses a system based on Steinberg's Cubase DAW software, with a customised sample player for his library, and a touch screen controller for adding performance gestures and other nuances.

If the technology route is not for you, fear not, as you can still use manuscript and an orchestra, the way John Williams does.

My next research project will be Australian composer, David Hirschfelder, and if we’re lucky I can get some thoughts from David on his approach to scoring for film.

Links to some interesting reading and references: