10 Tips for using Virtual Instruments in Composing and Music Production – Part II

Jim-Studio-writingIn part 2 of my article on using Virtual Instruments, I’ll have a closer look at some of the aspects of orchestral VI plugins and also provide some musical examples of the sounds I’m using in my compositions that demonstrate the features I’m talking about.

In recent years the quality of orchestral VIs has increased dramatically.  There are now a wide assortment of companies offering full-orchestra VIs as well as solo versions of specific instruments in the orchestra such as  Violin, Cello, Flute, Trumpet, Piano, etc.   Depending on your needs you may need one or both options.   For much of the music I was working on, I needed that full-orchestra sound that I’d heard in my head that I could never achieve with the plugins that were pre-bundled with my DAW software.  Some of my cheaper plugins approached the quality I needed but still had major holes in the orchestra.  I had decent string sounds but no woodwinds other than flutes and a few saxes, no brass unless I only wanted salsa-trumpet sounds and basic fake-sounding trombones, and nothing in the way of harps sounds.  After getting East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra, I was kicking myself for not getting it sooner.

Tip #5:  Use your VI plugins as a tool to learn arranging techniques

One of the side benefits to having a high-quality orchestral VI plugin is that they can be a great educational tool for arranging/composing for various instruments that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. There’s no better teacher than your own ears for learning what can work in an arrangement when you have access to the right sounds to demo your ideas. Imagine having a full orchestra at your disposal, anytime day or night, to play your arrangements, no matter how badly they might suck, as you experiment with different groups of instruments. Through the magic of midi you can demo various instruments playing against each other, swapping out parts with different instruments of the orchestra, editing the voicing of your harmony, previewing options along the way, and improve your ability to “play the orchestra” as you become more accustomed to the most effective ways to use the different sounds in each section. This alone is well worth the price of buying a decent orchestral VI. As a matter of fact, after getting mine I’ve found myself listening to more orchestral music to get better ideas for arranging music for the different sections of the orchestra. (this makes my wife happy on long road trips when we have to agree on music).

Tip #6:  When shopping for an orchestral VI, read the product information online to understand how the instrument sounds were sampled, which specific instruments are contained in the library, and any features to create ambiance with the plugin, such as as mic-placement controls and reverb options.

When I first started auditioning the various sounds from the East West Quantumm Leap Symphonic Orchestra plugin online I was floored! It provided that big Hollywood-movie-orchestra kind of sound that I’d heard on so many movie scores.  As I read more about the company and how their orchestral libraries were captured I discovered some impressive facts:

  • The orchestral library took several years of recording and post-production to create the samples (this explains their strict licensing scheme requiring an i-Lock USB key)
  • They recorded the sounds in some of the most famous critically acclaimed concert halls across the world using grammy-award-winning engineers and producers who had years of experience recording orchestras. This explains why it sounds the way it does: big, spacious, warm tones, lots of detail, as if you’re in the middle of a gigantic orchestra. A huge amount of work went into creating this library and you can tell by the way it sounds.
  • The instruments were recorded in various locations within the concert hall: from the conductors stand, up close, using various types of room mics, etc. These different mic placements are available in the Platinum version of the library and can be controlled from the plugin (adjusting the amount of up-close versus room sound you want).  The VI also comes with its own convolution reverb to add even more ambiance to the orchestra if needed.   All of this makes it easier to create a big spacious sound, which is why we want an orchestral library in the first place.

The level of detail and attention paid to the way the instruments sound is what finally sold me on this plugin.   I can’t imagine how much work it would have been to sample all of these instruments in a variety of ranges and articulations, EQ and balance all of the various recorded samples, and pull all them into a single plugin that is easy to work with.  I have no regrets about buying this one, it was worth every penny.

EWQL Symphonic Orchestra - Interface

EWQL Symphonic Orchestra – Interface

 Tip #7:  To get the most  realistic sounds out of your orchestral plugins, spend the time to explore all of the articulations available for each instrument sound

One of the better aspects of this plugin is that they sample the strings, horns, and woodwinds with various “articulations” common to each instrument and make them easy to find and use.  Articulations are the different ways a given instrument can be played to make different sounds. For example, a violin can be bowed in a number of different ways (long and short bow, tremolo, bowed close to the bridge, plucked).  All of these different ways of playing the violin create a unique sound and bring out different tonalities of the instrument. For a realistic orchestral library you want to have all of these various articulations available to use so that you can express all of the same techniques that a real string player, brass, or wood-wind player will use for different phrases in a piece of music.

The various articulations are sampled separately so that all of the right overtones are captured when the instrument is played in a specific way.  For this VI plugin the articulations are controlled by hitting a separate midi note (out of range of your selected instrument patch) mapped to a specific articulation you want to use, while playing a separate note for the actual pitch you want to sound.  In this way you can specify the pitch, velocity, duration, and articulation all from your midi keyboard.  They call this “key switching”.   In the screenshot above you can see the key-switches for the articulations (blue keys) and the range of available notes (white keys) for the cellos.   When playing a part you simply hit the blue keys (mapped to the articulation you want) while playing the other keys non-blue keys for the part you want to play.  For me it’s easier to record the actual notes of a part on a first pass, then go back later and specify the articulations for each note (in the piano roll editor) and tweak as needed to get the articulations that suit the type of part I’ve played.  Note:  most of the high-quality orchestral VIs will require a significant amount of disc space to install the sample library due to the amount of samples needed for all of these different articulations of each instrument.  You will use them!!

I made good use of the EWQL Symphonic Orchestra plugin for my song “Invasion of Mayberry”.  Prior to having this VI plugin I first recorded the song with a cheaper assortment of VIs that didn’t contain some of the more useful articulations for horns and strings, such as trombone swells, spiccato and tremolo strings, staccato and sustained piccolos, trills and falls for various instruments, string clusters, horn clusters, etc.

For this track, I was going for a 60’s comedy-sci-fi movie kind of vibe.  I spent a lot of time listening to music from different shows of that era including The Twilight Zone, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Get Smart, and It Came From Outer Space, to name a few.  From this I came up with some ideas for the type of articulations to use in the orchestra parts to bring out the vibe I was going for (quirky, mysterious, retro, spy theme).  Here are some of the specific articulations I used:

  • “rips” from the piccolos
  • swells and flutter tonguing from the trombones
  • plucked and spiccato sounds from the cellos

I couldn’t believe what a difference it made to spend the time exploring all of these options to make these parts fit the vibe of the song that I was going for.   I’m glad that I saved my original version of this song since it provides a good  before-versus-after comparison of the same song recorded with two different plugins.

Here is before-version of the track using my old VI plugins with few options for articulations to use to make the orchestral parts more life-like:

      1. Before

Now here is the same track after I re-orchestrated my parts with the EWQL Symphonic Orchestra plugin, and spent the time explore and edit the different articulations for each part.

      2. After

You can hear how the trombone swells and flutter-tonging parts worked much better on the intro especially, as well as the more realistic piccolos “rips”, and plucked cellos. You can hear the “tremolo” cellos at 1:22 which added more tension to this part of the song as it blasts-off into the final chorus.   I also used the trombone swells at the very end to give a more mysterious and dramatic end to that minor/major7 (a.k.a. “James Bond”) chord.  I also liked the sound of the xylophone much better overall in the EWQL Symphonic Orchestra plugin compared to my old plugin. I can hear much more detail in the instrument, even the sound of the mallets hitting the keys, making the part work much better with the piccolos (who are doubling those xylophone accents) to give that 60s kind of I Dream of Genie theme sound that was used so much in TV and movie music of that period. None of this would have been possible with my cheaper plugins, and the new sounds made the song work much better, at least to my ears.

In part III of this article I’ll talk about using VIs for funky horn parts, have a look at features for “humanizing” parts, and and lastly, I’ll discuss system-performance considerations when using VIs in your recording setup.    Until then, happy music making!

10 Tips for Using Virtual Instruments for Composing and Music Production : Part I

Jim Pfeifer

Jim Pfeifer

One of the best aspects computer-based recording is the wide variety of Virtual Instrument plugins available for music production. Virtual Instruments are essentially software modules that provide additional instrument sounds that can be purchased as add-on modules for your computer recording software environment (a.k.a. DAW – digital audio workstation).

Tip #1:  Before purchasing a Virtual Instrument plugin, make sure to check the supported plugin formats of your DAW software

Virtual Instruments use a variety of standard formats for “plugging into” your DAW environment. The most popular plug-in formats are:

  • VST(Virtual Studio Technology, supported on both MacOS and Windows),
  • RTAS (Real Time Audio Suite),
  • AU (Audio Units for Apple OS X Core Audio)
  • ReWire (an inter-application communication engine developed by Propeller Head Software).

When buying a Virtual Instrument plug-in, make sure to check the supported formats with your DAW manufacturer’s website to be sure that the plug-in supports one of the data formats supported by your DAW software. As with most other software purchases, it’s very difficult to return it to the store after you have opened the box.

The choice of Virtual Instrument for music production is mind-blowing. The more difficult part is knowing which Virtual Instruments are the best choice for your needs out of the huge assortment of them on the market today. Virtual Instruments (VI) essentially replace the use of a “real” instrument in the recording process and can also be used for live performance, in a lot of cases. VI’s are controlled/played by any midi compatible controller such as a midi keyboard, midi guitar, or even by hand-editing your own midi information in your DAW environment’s piano-roll editor. There are VIs available for nearly every musical application including synthesizers, beat-box-groove machines, orchestral instruments, re-creations of vintage keyboards, brass and horn sections, drums & percussion, ethnic instruments, bass guitars, electric/acoustic guitars, … you name it, there is a VI available for that sound.   The quality of VIs is getting better all the time, only limited by user’s musical ideas and patience in taking the time to use the VI to its full capabilities.

Tip #2  Keep it real as much as you can, don’t overuse VI plugins for every sound

My overall philosophy is to use live instruments and real players as much as possible, and only use a VI plugin for those instrument sounds that I can’t play myself, or for sounds that are impossible to record in my home studio. The best approach for me is to mix my own real instrument tracks (guitars, ukulele, dobro, bass, hand percussion) along with other tracks created using VI plugins. Somehow the human element of using real instruments, recorded in a live performance, add an organic feel to the sound that helps to balance some of the mechanical-sounding aspects of some VIs. As a musician I can see how VI plugins are replacing the work that a lot of session musicians used to do. However, as a composer I’m thrilled to have the assortment of instrument sounds in my production toolbox that I can use without the need to bring real players into my home studio, setup mic’s, engineer the recording, manage the session, pay the musicians, etc.

Tip #3:  When shopping for VI plugins, have your desired sounds in mind and audition the various choices from several companies.  Some companies specialize in specific kinds of instruments and others offer an complete suite

As I started getting more serious about composing I set out to find the best choice of plug-ins to provide me with the following sounds that I use for many of my songs:

  • Synth textures and electronica sounds
  • Electronic grooves and drumbeats
  • Strings, Woodwinds, Brass and other orchestral sounds
  • Jazz, funk, and big-band horn sounds

As part of my search, I read lots of interviews with TV/film composers to find out which VI plugins they liked, as well as reading tons of online reviews from various users. I began to see a lot of the same manufacturer names showing up in the lists of software used by people in the industry.

Tip #4:  Buy the best quality VI’s you can afford.  Don’t settle for the VI’s that come pre-bundled with your DAW

After some research, I narrowed my list to a few VI plugins for the specific types of sounds I was looking for. Rather than buying all of my VI plugins from a single manufacturer (which can be more cost effective, especially when you buy a bundle of VI instruments) I cherry-picked my list of best-in-breed VI plugins for the types of sounds I wanted in my toolbox. My shortlist included:

  • East West Quantumm Leap Symphonic Orchestra – one of the very best choices in the industry for orchestral sounds, if not the very best available
  • Vir2 Mojo Horns – Fantastic for Jazz, Funk, and Big-band horn sounds. When used properly it’s extremely close to the real thing, mind blowing.
  • Spectrasonics – Omnisphere – One of the very best synth instruments on the planet, very inspiring to use
  • Spectrasonics – Stylus RMX – Killer plug-in for creating electronic grooves, makes me sound younger, more urban, and reduces signs of aging

After tallying up the cost of my new “must-have” list of plugins, and thinking of sweet things to say to my wife before spending the money, I pulled the trigger on my purchase (it wasn’t cheap!). As with so many other things in life, be prepared to pay more for high quality. If you want the best sounding and high-quality plugins, you have to pay a premium. Keep in mind that my choice of VI plugins is only my opinion, based on what I was looking for. There are plenty of other great companies out there making fantastic VIs, and my list should not be taken as a definitive “best VIs” list. Do your own research based on your needs and budget!

After receiving my new plugins and spending some time to get familiar with them, I began to realize that they stood out from my other less expensive (pre-bundled with DAW software) plugins in a few key areas:

A well-designed user interface can help you find useful sounds quickly!

This is certainly true of the Spectrasoncis plugins I’ve bought. After using Omnisphere and RMX on a few projects I could tell that the plugins were created by people that actually compose music for a living. It seems as if every feature in the plugin is made to help you get inspired, and find the right sound quickly. In addition, there are hardly any sounds in the huge library that are non-usable. By contrast, many of my cheaper VI plugins have tons of useless sounds crowding the library, making it very difficult to find a useful sound unless I am only focused on making music for the next rave party or hip-hop remix (it’s just not what I’m into). In Omnisphere there is a menu that allows you to hone in on a sound based on the emotional attributes you’re going for rather than patch name. How cool is that? This is much easier than remembering tons of patch names that often have nothing to do with the sound’s texture or emotional attributes. In Omnisphere you can type in search terms such as “suspense” or “dreamy” or along with other attributes like “organic” or “electronica” and it immediately creates a pallet of usable patches for you to audition until you find the right sound for your song. Not only does this save a lot of time, but it can mean the difference between finding a sound that is inspiring, instead of halting your creative process altogether in frustration when you spend too much time hunting for the right sound. This is especially true when you have limited time to get your work done.

Spectrasonics Omnisphere - Patch Browser

Spectrasonics Omnisphere – Patch Browser

Online demos are one of the best ways to audition a VI before you buy it to see if it covers the sounds and features you’re looking for.   As the demo below shows, this synth has great sounds (as it should) but also it designed to inspire creative interaction with the composer, which is what I was looking for to help me come up with new and interesting textures for my music.

In part II of my article I’ll have a closer look at some of the aspects to consider when looking for quality orchestral VI plugins.

Music Production Insights to be Learned from Bob Ross

Bob Ross painting a happy tree

Bob Ross painting a happy tree

For some reason I’ve always enjoyed watching episodes of Bob Ross’s “The Joy of Painting” when it airs on our local PBS station every Saturday morning.   All this time I could never quite figure out why I found this show so interesting.   Is it his 70’s era fro that could send the Brady Bunch into a fit of jealousy?  Or is it his Hoosier-sounding accent that reminds me of some of my relatives?   Or is it the peaceful way that he creates his art, allowing himself the freedom to make anything he wants in his world, happy trees, a mountain stream, a quiet meadow, in such an effortless way?  He even says that line that I like so much  “.. there are no mistakes, just happy accidents“.  How cool is that?  I should tattoo that across my forehead someday.  If only my boss had the same philosophy about my work?

For so long I could never pin-point the real reason that I like to watch this show until it finally hit me one day.   Much of the same mental process of visualization happens within my mind’s eyes & ears when producing a piece of music as it does in creating a painting.

If you think of songs as “audio paintings of sound”  then you can gain some insights by watching how paintings come together.   I’ve always tried to visualize my music in the same way, as if it is a painting in my mind that I’m trying to realize in sound.

  • There is often a background image that supports everything else, and provides the context for the other elements of the painting
  • There are supporting characters on top of that background image that add depth and interest, but are not the main focus
  • Then there is a central element of the painting that is the main focus, that could stand alone as a separate painting but usually much more meaningful and interesting in the context of the background image and supporting characters

In Bob Ross’s world this might look like the following:

  • Background:   The horizon is painted in faded hues, gradually going from light to dark to mimic the sky meeting the horizon in the distance. Continue reading

Welcome Crazy Composers!

Jim Pfeifer

Jim Pfeifer

Why the Crazy Composer Blog?

Most creative pursuits require some amount of craziness on behalf of the creator.   Letting go of your inhibitions, and stifling your inner critic, requires a certain amount of craziness.  It’s only through that process of letting go that ultimately lead you to your best work.  This has been my own experience, both as a musician and a composer.

I created this blog to share my passion for creating music, as well as my love for teaching about various aspects of the music creation process.    As a composer today there are so many things that one needs to develop skills in (often it is equal parts musical and technical).   This process can become almost overwhelming when you look at from the perspective of a solo composer, creating their own work in a project studio, playing most of their own parts:

  • musical concepts and theory
  • knowledge of various genres and styles of music
  • orchestration skills
  • performing techniques (assuming that you are playing your own instruments)
  • recording and production techniques
  • sound design and knowledge of various software used in music making
  • IT skills
  • knowledge of the music business
If trying to simultaneously juggle all of these aspects doesn’t make you go crazy, then I should probably come up with a new name for my blog.  Crazy or not, I find this whole environment exciting!  There’s nothing like the thrill of hearing your finished production through the studio monitors for the first time, after starting with an initial spark of an idea in your head and sculpting it into a finished work.  I live for this!  It demands every ounce of talent I can muster and every remaining brain cell I still have left after college.  When a piece finally comes together, there’s simply nothing like that thrill of hearing it fully realized.

There are tons of web sites focused on reviewing music gear, or teaching guitar licks, but I haven’t found many sites dedicated to the big picture, the art of composing music in a project studio.   I wanted to create this blog to serve as both an ongoing journal of my own composing projects, but also to share what I’ve learned with others as I make my own journey through this.  If you find any of my own insights to be useful to you on your own musical journey, then I’ve accomplished my mission.

I am not a full-time professional composer and I don’t come from a famous music school (although I certainly would have liked to have had that opportunity).   But I have been playing music for most of my life, and I’ve always had a fascination with music and the process of creating it.   My life-long journey with music seems to boil down to this concept:  I’m on a constant search to understand “why” various musical concepts sound good, and make me feel a certain way.  It has never been enough for me to learn a certain riff or chord that I liked, without some attempt to understand why the composer decided to use that chord, that scale, in a song.  Why does it work and why does it make me feel a certain way.   I didn’t realize it back when I was first learning about music through my guitar playing, but this was the beginning of my life as a composer, always searching to understand more music and how to harness it to express various emotions and ultimately connect with people.

I was drawn to music at a young age, constantly figuring out little melodies on the piano and trying to copy songs that I’d heard on the radio.  I was a “play by ear” player when I first started using whatever we had around the house, the piano, a harmonica, etc.     I picked up the guitar at the age of 13, after taking a guitar class at school.  I was immediately drawn to the instrument and practiced constantly.   My school teacher urged me to study with a Jazz instructor to further my studies.  After auditioning for a local Jazz guitar player, he agreed to take me on as a student and I studied with him for several years.   I also had a huge fascination with Blues and Rock.   In those days if you wanted to learn the Blues and Rock stuff your only option was to learn by listening to records, since most of the legit  instructors would not teach the Rock and Blues stuff.  I spent lots of time wearing out albums by Johnny Winter, BB King, Rory Gallagher, Santana, or anything else I could get my hands on that I could copy some licks from.

One of my musical turning points came when I first heard the Steely Dan album “Aja”.   At that point my world of Jazz instruction and Blues were completely separate things, but when I heard this record I realized that there were people out there who somehow merged these two worlds into something new.  I was completely blown away.  I started reading all of the album liner notes to find out who these session musicians were.  This got me into players like Larry Calton, Tom Scott, Robben Ford, Lee Ritenour and guys like that who had a more developed musical approach to Blues and Rock playing.  This also led me to players like Pat Metheny, who I’ve admired for many years as much for his composing talents as well has his playing.

I had the opportunity to meet one of my all time heroes, Alan Parsons, at CES last year

I had the opportunity to meet one of my all time heros, Alan Parsons, at CES last year

I’ve always had a certain musical curiosity that has driven me to learn new things.    I remember hearing the intro to “The Twilight Zone”  when I was a kid, and how it made me feel the first time I’d heard it.   I spent hours with my guitar, twisting my fingers in various ways up the neck until I could copy the lick exactly with my guitar.  (only later I learned that this part was actually recorded with two guitars)  I saved that lick and used it to make people laugh at rehearsals whenever someone would say something stupid, or at basketball games with the “pep band”  whenever the referee would make a bad call.   The audience seemed to like it too, especially if the referee made a particularly bad call.

One of my friends in junior high had a talent for making sound effects and impersonations with his voice.   We would sit down with a tape recorder and make little comedy shows, where he would create these voice characters and I would compose background music to go with each character,  spacey music for the alien story,  funky music for the James Brown character, game show music for the quizz show section, etc.   I found it both challenging and great fun to come up with music that would enhance my friends impersonations.   Had I only known back then that there were people who made their livings doing such things, I might have taken it more seriously.

I studied Electrical Engineering in college but I continued my musical studies as well, taking many courses in Music Theory, Jazz Improvisation, Electronic Music, and playing in the university Jazz ensembles.   I also started working as a session musician at a local studio that created demos for a local song writer, who owned the studio.

Working at Wildfire Studios in the 80's

Working at Wildfire Studios in Las Cruces, New Mexico during the 80s

This was my first exposure to arranging and the importance of having good material to start with.  We were given horrendously bad songs and asked to make them sound like pop hits of the day.   It was a huge challenge to take crap songs and make them sound like something fit for the radio.  Soon after this I started collecting my own gear to start my own home studio, so that I could experiment with my own songs.

Over the years I’ve kept up my music activities, even though I’ve made my living in the technology industry. I’ve played in a variety of bands and also taken session work for various musicians in the area playing country, mex-tex, rock, blues, Jazz, rockabilly, surf, and worship music among other things.

I started getting more serious about composing in the last 10 years as the technology has vastly improved,  and professional recording technology has become more accessible without resorting to bank robbery to fund it.  In addition, the internet has provided new ways for musicians to connect with potential opportunities, and other like-minded folks all over the world.

Working in Las Vegas 2007 doing session work for producer Tommy DeVito of The Four Seasons

Working in Las Vegas 2007 doing session work for producer Tommy DeVito of The Four Seasons

In the recent past I entered a composing contest for a cartoon called “The Zenoids”  where my composition made it to one of the top 40 finalists.  The whole process of going through that contest and competing against other serious composers, made me realize just how much I’ve always been drawn to this world.  Sometimes your path becomes easier to see as you look back on where you’ve been.  Or perhaps, one day I’ll look back on this and go slamming into a parked car, who knows?

At the current time I’m still writing my stuff and always searching for new things to explore musically.  My ultimate goal is to license my music for advertising, web media, TV, Film, or whatever it may be useful for.  Welcome to my blog, and I hope that you find something useful here.

–Jim Pfeifer