10 Tips for using Virtual Instrument Plugins in Composing and Music Production – Part III

In part III of my article on using virtual instruments for composing, I’ll talk about some considerations to humanize your parts using the Vir2 Mojo Horns plugin and Spectrasonics Stylus RMX as examples, and lastly I’ll provide some basic guidelines for good system performance.

Tip #8:  Look for VI plugins that provide ways to “humanize” the sounds to create a less machine-like and more musical sounding parts

Humanizing horns

One of the examples of this is the way the Vir2 Mojo Horns plugin  provides an automatic way to use a different sound sample for an instrument when you repeat several notes in a row (in a round-robin fashion). Say for example, you have a horn part that repeats a note several times in succession in a fast sequence. If the same sound sample is used for each note, your ear will perceive this as “mechanical” and unnatural sounding since a real horn player will have slight variations in tone for each note they play in succession.  This is part of the human element that adds to the feel of a phrase. The Vir2 Mojo Horn plugin tries to account for this by swapping in different samples for each note in sequence form the same instrument, adding some variance in tone from note-to-note, making the part sound much more realistic. They also provide a wide variety of articulations for each instrument in the library to allow you to dial in the attack and decay effects you need to make the horn parts sound and feel real.  You may be wondering why you can’t just use the same horn instruments from an orchestral library to do your Jazz and Funk horn parts as well?   The reason for having separate Virtual Instruments for these different types of horn applications boils down to the articulations mostly.  The Vir2 Mojo Horn VI contains all of the commonly-used articulations that would be used in Jazz, Funk, and Soul, whereas the East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra would cover the horn articulations (and recording space) used for symphonic music.

Vir2 Mojo Horn Section

Vir2 Mojo Horn Section

To make Mojo Horns even more realistic for Jazz and Funk applications, the articulations in the library (swells, and crescendos), are timed to the tempo of your project so that the peak of the swell happens in time with the groove of your music (you can even specify how many beats for the swell), the way a real horn section would phrase in a Jazz or Funk setting.   As I started experimenting with all of the articulation controls I realized how important it was to pay careful attention to the phrasing and use the right articulations at each part of the phrase. This results are well worth the time, since this creates the most realistic sounding horn parts. This process also sent me on some careful listening to big-band and funk music to become more aware of the way real horn players phrase (see what I mean about the educational aspect of using some of these plugins). I now have a renewed appreciation for Duke Ellington’s skill in arranging (pure genius), as well as the horn players of Earth Wind and Fire and Tower of Power. My learning continues!

Here’s a song that I wrote recently to come up with a theme inspired by late-night-comedy TV shows, that shows off the Vir2 Mojo Horn library. I was going for a funky horn-oriented sound for this song and I spent a lot of time dialing in the articulations for these parts to get the sound I was after after:

      1. Late Night Stomp'n

Humanizing synthetic beat-box grooves

In the Spectrasonics RMX plugin, which is essentially an instrument for creating electronic grooves, they provide an extremely useful feature called “Chaos Designer” which is a tool for adding randomness into your repeating, drum-loop grooves. The Chaos Designer feature can effect the timing and volume of the various groove beats, as well as the pitch and distorted tone, all in a random way. When used sparingly, such as at the end of 8-bar phrases where a drummer would normally play a fill, it gives new excitement and energy to your tracks, making it much more musical and less mechanical sounding. Again, this is a feature that composers would dream up (which is why I’m such a fan of the Spectrasonics plugins), inspiring you to do more creative things with your Virtual Instrument than would otherwise be possible.

Here is a video that shows how this “Chaos Designer” feature in RMX can be used to introduce randomness in to a groove for making fills and transitions.  I used this technique on my song “Desert”, to add variety to the groove at the end of 8-bar phrases.

Tip #9:  To get the most realistic sounds from sampled instruments in VI, don’t play parts out of the normal range for the selected instrument

Most of the higher-quality VI’s will typically limit the range of your available notes for a given instrument patch automatically, based on the instrument you’re playing.  But in some cases you may need to configure the settings in your VI to limit the range if this not an automatic process.   Playing samples outside the normal range of the instrument will tend to sound more fake as the VI will usually take samples (within the range of the instrument) and modulate them up or down to get the desired note.  Depending on how far out-of-range your desired note is, the modulated sample will sound unnatural and fake to your ear.

Tip #10:  Make sure to have adequate CPU, RAM, and Disk space for the VIs that you plan to use

Lastly, if you plan to use a lot of VI plugins for your music then you will be putting more demands on the system performance of your computer.   VIs normally use some combination of synthesis (e.g. running sound generation algorithms on your CPU) and sampling (playing back digital samples from files on your disk) to create their sounds.  Most plugins will use some combination of both techniques at the same time.   VIs that are more synthesis-heavy can place a larger load on your CPU, whereas sample-based VIs tend to require more RAM and disk space.  If your computer only supports the bare minimum system requirements listed from the manufacture of your VI you may find that the VI will not be very reliable (audio dropouts during recording, DAW software halting due to low memory conditions, very long load-up time for your VI, etc).   To avoid these kinds of problems, you should build in adequate performance capability for your computer system from the start.  I’ve listed some general guidelines to ensure good performance and minimal system problems when using a lot of VIs in your composing and recording projects:

  • CPU:  Your DAW machine should use a multi-core CPU such as Intel i7, i5, or any of the comparable choices from AMD
  • RAM:  Upgrade the amount of RAM in your system to as much as your system can support (4GB at a minimum, 8GB or more preferred)
  • Hard Disks:
    • Spend the extra money to get higher performance hard disks (7200 rpm, 64MB cache).  Slow hard disks (no matter how large) can become a performance bottle neck in the recording process, as well as causing longer delays when loading instrument samples into RAM when you need them.
    • Keep your music tracks on a separate disk from your recording software
    • Keep your sample libraries on a separate disk than your recording software

I hope three-part article has provided some useful information about Virtual Instruments and some things to consider to get the most out of them for your music.

Happy music making! Till next time, –Jim


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.