Presets, templates and the good practice

All considered, making an universal preset schema that can work for all your sounds, and arranging the sounds in a template that will make your ensemble sound coherent, is not dissimilar to tuning the instruments of an orchestra in the old times.

With digital instruments, we no longer need to spend time tuning, unless you have the old-fashioned idea of calling in some acoustic instrument. In the pre-digital era, you had to accurately tune everything, including some analogue synth.

Renaissance and Early Baroque – a bit earlier than the birth of the opera, and at the times of Monteverdi – you had to choose a tuning among the many experimental ones. Bach had not yet come with his propaganda for completely equal tuning, good for all the scales. Meantone tuning, for example, was one good for great sounding major thirds and decent sounding fifths, and you had to think to the most used ‘modes’ to choose the best sounding intervals. You had to patiently tune by ear by listening to beatings between intervals, and ultimately following your taste.

Creating presets and templates is our preliminary work on what would lead to great sounding music. You have to think to the music that you will want to do, and decide which articulations, which layout, which selection controls and which space to use. It’s nothing more than what our ancestors did with a tuning fork and good ears: tuning their instruments to make them their immediately collaborative musical partners.

Composing at the sequencer or notation software

If you are like, a considerable amount of time is spent, before even touching a key, to decide if the project has to be done in a sequencer/DAW software, or a score notation program. If you can’t read written music, there is only a choice. If you can, you are falling between two stools, torn between two possible choices.

In general, I tend to go for a sequencer when I have to write for visual media, or to create a credible mockup of classical music. If I have to compose something in a style that implies sophisticate notation craft, I go for the notation software. If you are like me, you know that a written page of music is something more than music – it is an art in itself, where the composed symbols on the page translate into performed music, and are never just a mere transcription of resounding music.

There are situations where the choice continues to be hard. Hybrid scores, for example, might require so much realtime control, that notation software may lack the needed tools. Sibelius, for example, allows for MIDI controls written over the score. Handy, if all you have to do is to send an articulation switch here and there. Not much so, if you have to control the hectic filter opening or a synthesizer.

Dorico seems to promise to be the best of both worlds. As a notation program, it thinks are a contemporary composer does, with an innate flexibility in recording, transcription, separate editing of the two parallel graphic and performance layers. And then actual playback. As a sequencer, it has a clever piano roll page, where you can access notes as two overlapping layers (graphic; performance), running next to lines representing MIDI controllers and a lane with articulation changes.

Still, I feel that a sequencer will continue to be my preferred tool to model sound as clay; and notation software will mostly serve for art music, where either real performers are involved, or the graphic art is simply too important to leave it to a bare Score page in software conceived for noisier music.

Interlinking a score and its sounds

I confess: I’m (mostly) a serial composer. Hybridized with a spectral one. With no little influx from ambient and brutal noisemakers. I’m one of those kids who compose not only with notes, but also with everything happening to them. Odd bow movements, overblowing, punching unexpected parts of the skin with unintended tools.

As a consequence, there is this schizophrenia for which there are times when you have to accurately listen to the resulting sound, comparing it to the one you were imagining, and put it to the test of reality. And other times, when you need absolute silence, to prevent the wrong sounds to interfere with your creative process.

A discussion in the forum dedicated to Dorico, the notation program, offered an interesting perspective. You can easily and completely separate the score from the sound generator. Dorico can drive external players, like NI’s Kontakt or VSL’s Vienna Ensemble Pro. It can also switch to a silent player.

Therefore, you can build your orchestral template as accurately as possible. Make all the noise you like. When you need silence, just run Dorico without first running Vienna Ensemble Pro. No waiting time, no wrong sounds. Just you and your inner musical daemon.

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Orchestral prototypes

We all agree that there is no substitute to a human player – a skilled one – playing contemporary techniques on real instruments. As for me, this is still the final goal of composing: making music for a community of people wanting to enjoy music, both as players and as listeners.

The use of computers and sound libraries is a help for composition. What once was done with a real piano, or even with the family or friends reading your freshly written music in the evening, is now done with this sophisticate keyboard instrument that is the sampler.

There is a growing opportunity of making nearly credible prototypes with the current tools. The libraries from IRCAM are explicitly made for contemporary music, and Xsample libraries contain several of the same techniques. Some smaller houses, like Soniccouture, Sonokinetic or 8Dio, have other useful sounds. VSL, Orchestral Tools, Spitfire Audio are adding more and more of these techniques, even if their core business is not mainly this niche, but the modern composer for media in advanced markets (like the sophisticate world of film and TV production in London, Paris or Berlin), where using the most recent vocabulary is allowed and even required.

My impression is that a composer is no longer forced to just imagine his/her music, but can put it to test with the available compositional tools. And if these tools can open a way to other new techniques – either in the world of acoustic or electronic instruments – music will gain something new.