Orchestral Music for Film, Television, and Radio

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Digital Applications for Composers

A "How-To" in Outline
by Daniel de Quincy

Step Three

Level Four

As noted in the previous section, realism in your instrumental simulations is a function of control over a wide range of performance parameters. Some of these are very basic, such as pitch, length of note, loudness, etc. Others ultimately reduce to a matter of phrasing, linear dynamics, choice of timbres, etc. Although, as noted, much of this control may be had with a fine synthesizer, achieving an acceptable degree of realism will require some additional purchases for your studio. You will still need to use your synthesizer, and at this point it is really essential that it be one of the so-called "sampling" synthesizers, such as the Kurzweil.

One of the advantages of a sampling synthesizer is that it enables you to load new sounds into its memory banks whenever you wish. While the instrumental sounds that come with your factory-configured synthesizer may be very fine in their own way, and while they may be extremely useful as basic approximations during the work of composing, most are not up to the task of making a highly realistic instrumental simulation. Moreover, the synthesizer manufacturer is able to give you at best only a very tiny repertoire of instrumental sounds to choose from. Happily, a great quantity of additional instrumental sounds may be loaded very easily into any sampling synthesizer.

In my studio, I rely extensively on an excellent library of instrumental sounds recorded in Europe by Miroslav Vitous. A full set of five CD disks is expensive but well worth the price. It contains a great variety of instrumental samples, representing many different kinds of articulation, all recorded in a concert hall using advanced digital recording systems.

Finally, in my studio, two additional items are required to complete the chain of components that produce outstanding orchestral simulations. The first of these is a very sophisticated audio "in/out" device (the so-called "Lexicon Studio") that takes audio signals from my synthesizer and sends them to my computer for processing and for recording to the computer’s hard disk. And the second device is a CD recorder, on which I make CD copies of the recordings that I have stored on the hard disk.

In practice, to make a simulation, I perform and record each instrumental voice individually. This gives me maximum control over the performance of each part, and adds commensurately to the time required to produce the final recording. Naturally, the music you make may be taken to any degree of perfection desired, assuming a willingness and ability to do the work.

Recall now all of the previous steps we have been through one by one.

  • I use my synthesizer keyboard to enter notes into a score that appears on my computer display.
  • I use my computer to play the "audible score" of my composition on my synthesizer, make any necessary revisions, and print a conventional score for study or distribution.
  • When the composition is complete, I create an enhanced audible score, subjecting all of its various performance parameters to the musical demands of the piece.
  • I load the Vitous orchestral library of samples into my synthesizer to get high quality instrumental sounds that I further shape individually (in terms of loudness, length, etc.) according to my needs in the composition.
  • At that point, I am ready to record the audio signal that comes out of the synthesizer when the computer "plays" my audible score.

[It is worth pointing out that, unlike a recording that I may possibly succeed in obtaining from a live performance by a real orchestra, the rights to my simulation are entirely mine, and the decision about what to do with the recording is mine also.)

It is not the purpose of this article to present a detailed account of the technology that it describes. This article approaches the subject in general terms. This is but an outline of an actual "how-to," which would in any case require more space than a mere article allows. Therefore, I will not discuss many things – for example, the various reasons that led me to choose computer hard-disk recording for my own studio. There are other options available that may be more appropriate to your needs, such as recording to DAT tape.

Some of the rewards that come from creating a highly realistic instrumental simulation may be easily imagined, being much the same as the rewards that come from performing beautiful music on conventional instruments. When I realized how much work would be required in order to create a realistic orchestral simulation, I was at first a bit daunted. On reflection, it seemed to me no more, if also no less, taxing than playing beautiful music on my violin.

One of the rewards of making music in this way can be had in no other way. For, in effect, instrumental and orchestral simulations are being made today using what amounts to a new instrument – an instrument still in the early stages of development. I daresay, nothing can be more interesting and stimulating to a musician than to witness the birth of a new instrument.

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