Tech Column: A virtual sound palette
Monday, May 1, 2023
Recent improvements to the quality of virtual instruments can bring access to a range of sounds, as musician-composer-producer Josh Savage reports.
As the demand for new music in media continues to grow, many composers move to an ‘in the box’ solution, using just one computer for all of the sounds. This offers maximum flexibility and enables composers to create hybrid compositions – music including both electronic and acoustic sounds. To meet that demand, there are now more virtual instruments than ever, and therein lies an opportunity for us as teachers. We can show our students instruments from across the globe and offer the experience of writing for and hearing these instruments.
Types of instrument
Virtual instruments generally fall into two categories: synthesizers that create their own unique sounds, and samplers that aim to recreate acoustic instruments (the lines on this are often blurred but serve as a good starting point for this article). Previously, the virtual acoustic instruments did not sound particularly accurate but did afford their own charm, such as the mellotron. Now, however, most of your favourite modern film and tv scores will feature a virtual instrument and, when handled correctly, you would never know.
There are many benefits to using virtual instruments. Being able to hear the instruments as you write used to be a very expensive luxury, but this is now widely available. The ability to change passages in the music on receipt of notes from a director, without having to arrange another recording day, is equally valuable. But not all instruments are created equal, so as we begin to think about the use of these as an educational resource, here are the key factors that can make a virtual instrument worthwhile:
- Realistic tone
- Articulation choices
- Human quality
What makes a good virtual instrument?
At the core is a well-sampled sound. I highly rate the libraries at Spitfire audio, and there are great free instruments with the Spitfire labs project. The software Decent Sampler is free to download and, once installed, you can import other instruments that operate within this software. There is a bustling community of ‘samplers’ who make available their own home-sampled instruments, too. There is a good mixture of paid and free options here. Finally, you can often find software instruments bundled into your DAW of choice. On Ableton Live you can download additional packs within the app, and these are all very usable – special mention to the upright piano, string quartet and brass quartet which are made by Spitfire and included with Ableton for free.
After selecting the instrument, articulation is where I find most opportunities for musical expression. Using the string quartet in Ableton, for example, allows you to choose between a bank of long or short sounds; this includes Super Sul Tasto, Flautando, Sul Pont, Trem0lo and Spiccato. Equivalents are found in the orchestral instrument packs in Ableton, and it is possible with some of the Logic stock instruments, too.
The main aim is to create the most realistic, human-made sound possible. This is really a combination of both the above points in parallel with good MIDI programming. There's a lot to talk about when it comes to MIDI, but the main point is to get comfortable with automation. By automating different parameters within virtual instruments, you end up with a sound that ‘sounds’ much more ‘human’. These automations can be volume, intensity, articulation or anything else.
Through using virtual instruments, we encourage young composers to experiment with sounds that are outside their comfort zone, school or even the real world.
There are fun opportunities to be had, too, by creating pieces for students to play and record with. When composing for film and TV, we will often use a bed of virtual strings in conjunction with one or two live-players. Voilá, your student is now in a string orchestra! The only limit is how imaginative you can be, since the tools are there and more accessible than ever. The free options are often as compelling as the large libraries (check out Spitfire Audio's BBC Symphony Orchestra for free) – there is a fun and rewarding time to be had.