»Computer and electronic instruments«​

How to use it in practice

Since the 1990s, musicians have increasingly used sequencers or notation programs in conjunction with synthesizers or software instruments. 

The advantage of this is that you can work on the "finished sound" throughout the creative process.

The sequencers of those days have evolved into powerful workstations with notation modules and have become indispensable in studio and production environments.

Today, music notation programs are effective graphical user interfaces that can realistically reproduce the music created through the appropriate interfaces.

„Musical Score or Workspace?“

Composers and arrangers decide on which surface their music will be created.

The interaction between notation software and virtual instruments allows musicians to get scores to sound good long before the first rehearsal with live musicians or an orchestra. Ideally, this should prevent any nasty surprises during the live performance.

Does the notation correspond to the sound?

The moments of surprise have diminished, but not disappeared completely. Despite the amazing sound quality of virtual instruments, many productions suffer from sound deficits. This is usually not due to the musical material, style or mixing quality.

Do deficits have to do with the workflow? 

Deficits often start with the handling of individual instruments or ensemble sounds and quickly add up. The quality of the music produced suffers. The variety of playing techniques and articulations offered by sound libraries encourages "trial and error" rather than conscious "selection" of timbres. Today's way of working has changed considerably compared to "traditional instrumentation".

​To exaggerate a little: "In the past, you had to work your way through various orchestration books, read scores and listen to countless recordings. Today, you browse through menus of samples on the screen and make your selection with a mouse click.

Factory-Sound vs. Refinement

What do sound libraries contain and how do you deal with the diversity?

Is it important for every arranger to know how, for example, the samples "sul ponticello" on a cello [Video] or "natural harmonics" on a violin [Video] are executed "live"?

For production without live instruments this is not a problem at first. It can become critical if acoustic instruments are involved in the production process. A composer or arranger should have a clear idea of the sound of his music. In fact, he needs to know exactly what he is writing in the score so that what he wants sounds the way he wants it. Discussions with players are a waste of time and money.

Sound libraries often contain gigabytes of samples, sometimes for just "one" instrument. When you listen to productions using virtual instruments, you sometimes wonder where all those gigabytes have gone.

It doesn't matter how good the music is, if you don't have a "lucky hand" in selecting and using the sounds, or if you fall back on the recipes that many other colleagues have already (successfully) used.

Is there a "standard orchestra sound"? 

No - that would be terrible. Countless (film) composers have shown how varied instrumentation can be. Many composers can be recognised by their instrumentation.

And what is true for orchestral instruments is also true for virtual instruments:

Poorly orchestrated music sounds bad!

An example

The starting point is a simple piano score. The later orchestrated versions use this musical material and the same instrumentation. However, they are very different in sound.

Audio sample 1

Notation software | VST instruments | no additional effects | no further postprocessing

Comment: Only the pure musical material is heard here (sustained notes of the strings, piano, bass and clarinet motifs). The instruments start one after the other, there is no doubling of notes or voices. There are no fade-ins or fade-outs. This version is about the basic atmosphere: piano sound over a string surface with a woodwind motif before the finale.


Audio sample 2

Notation software | VST instruments | no additional effects | no further postprocessing

Comment: The basic musical material is still there, but individual notes have been doubled, sustained notes of the violins are overlaid with faded-in and faded-out sound variations (e.g. a simple vibrato is overlaid with a non-vibrato played on another string), bass notes of the piano are enriched with weak pizzicati of the cellos, etc. This instrumentation can be easily achieved by both instrumentalists and better sound libraries.


[mouse over & click  ]

That wasn't too bad for a beginning...

However, the instrumentation could be made more sophisticated.

There are many websites of varying quality on the Internet that focus on orchestration. They are mostly suitable for "quick answers" to specific questions. The basics of orchestration can be found, for example, in selected online orchestration courses:

And then there are the good old textbooks on orchestration. Here is a list from Wikipedia

The Project​