virtual instruments

The horrors of the ideas about horror music

Jump into a discussion about sound libraries like Spitfire Audio's Albion IV "Uist", Sonokinetic's Espressivo or 8Dio's CASE and CAGE, and you see that they are automatically associated to horror music. Some also associate Spitfire's EVOs, with their intrinsic instability, to horror music.

To be honest, some sound library manufacturer does nothing to prevent this automatic association. Native Instrument called their dedicated library, developed with Audiobro, "Thrill". 8Dio is not hiding this is the intended destination. And it is true that their CASE and CAGE library are very dedicated to the genre.

In my view, however, some of these, like Uist, Espressivo and the EVOs, are simply great tools for modern classical music. They are not "effects", but "words" or "phrases" typical of a particular modern language. In particular, Spitfire's Evolutions are more on the subtle side, so I would exclude them from the "horror effects" category.

All considered, we often consider "horror music" the soundtrack assembled by Kubrik for his movie Shining. But these were, in origin, modern classical pieces from Bartók, Ligeti and Penderecki. The ones to whom the finest of these libraries are inspired.

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.

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.

Outdated pianos – is the new trend loving something old?

So, the new trend seems to be loving something old. VSL have just release their antique piano, a magnificent Blüthner Series 6 dated 1895, and perfectly restored without modernizing it. Incidentally, not the oldest new release they had lately, since a reduced version of their Historic Winds was introduced as a Special Edition (SE) volume at the same time.

VSL are not the first one to give us antique pianos. Pianoteq has a whole library of antiques. In that case, however, one can question if you are really listening to a piano, or its synthetic avatar. Native Instruments gave us a rare Bechstein from 1905, with an old modernized sound. Galaxy Instruments has another Blüthner, this time a baby Model 150 from 1929.

From 1895 to 1929 the piano evolves, but it is still technically the same. Older means sounding more aged. Newer means that it can still sound new. But the base technique is the same. The great inventors of the end of the Nineteenth Century have already imagined all. Cast-iron frame, crossed strings. Untile the next step in materials.

Cinesamples has released a Steinway Model D from 1949, found in the Columbia Studios, and Embertone a later Steinway from 1955 owned by John Q. Walker for his Zenph project of revived piano rolls. Two world wars in the middle, and metallurgy has changed. Music-making has changed, with the after-war pianos meant for bigger halls and a less sentimental music.

The Embertone Walker sounds modern, but with a veil of antiquity, or savvy calm. It is not the angular, sharp piano we can listen to in modern recitals, or in newer sample libraries like the Synchron Yamaha and Steinway from VSL, or the aged after-war Steinway from the MGM Scoring Stage at Sony Pictures Studios in Los Angeles produced by Cinesamples with their CinePiano.

Antique is the new new. Traveling in time is a way to find inspiration. Even if you are not after an historically informed virtual performance, there is something disturbing and evoking in worn sounds. They come from some unusual place - if not in the space, at least out of our time.

Writing for the real, AND virtual players

Let's be honest: when writing a piece for a real ensemble or orchestra, we know that it will probably remain in the realm of virtual instruments. Our piece will never, ever be performed by a real orchestra.

I had the honor and pleasure of having some of my pieces performed by real players. Very skilled musicians, sometimes among the best players for that instrument. Yet, this is something that can only happen in some special events for most of us.

The rest of us will, most of the time, continue to listen to their works from virtual performers and instruments.

That means that we have to find a balance between writing for real instruments, and at the same time make accurate prototypes, that will have to be considered an alternative form of the final piece. Our piece has to sound great both when read by real performer, and when performed by our samplers.

We write for virtual orchestras. This is no longer to be considered a second choice. Virtual orchestras very often go into feature films released in major theaters. Virtual orchestras are a real instrument, even if the human content is just that of the musicians who recorded the samples, and the composer that created the virtual performance.

A tale of two sample players

Both Spitfire Audio (SA) and Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) have recently introduced their new players. The move from SA is easier to understand: they need to separate from Native Instruments and their sample player, Kontakt, on which all SA libraries where based.

With VSL things are a bit more complicate, because they already had their own player – Vienna Instruments (Pro) –, and this is a second player to maintain. The more apparent reason for this new software is that the new Synchron libraries, with their multiple mic sets, can't be managed very well with the old player.

Synchron Player is also easier to understand for a new user. Together with the easier-to-use new libraries, this might be a move towards becoming more commercial!

A quick comparison of the two VSL players is this, in my personal view:

- Synchron Player, based on a coherent metaphor of folder hierarchy, could be more immediate to grasp for the new user. How do you reach a particular sound? Just follow the path (as the Rabbit was telling Alice).

- Vienna Instruments' matrices are totally reconfigurable, and you can choose the number, size, position of the cells everywhere. Apart for you, nobody else will immediately be able to read a custom preset. And reading factory presets is not easier.

- Reaching a sound in VI can be a lot faster than in SP: point at that cell in the matrix. With SP, you have to go through the full path everytime.

- Crossfading between more that two layers is the real bonus of SP. Being able to fade between non vibrato, vibrato and molto vibrato, or between sul tasto, normale, and sul ponticello is something I've always wanted in VI. Will be there further development for VI? Please, add a third column of slots in a cell!

- Controller assignment can be much quicker in SP. You don't have to use CC1, you can use a meta-control that you can globally assign to CC1, or to any other controller. With VI you have to reprogram all matrices. (This is another thing I would like to see in VI: meta-controllers!).

- The standalone version of VIP allows for nearly-quick replication of presets from existing presets. A true life-saver.

The fast changing pace of articulation switching

What happens, when you play a piece with one of the modern, rich sound libraries? The computer takes your music symbols, and converts them into commands to select articulations. Here is how a solo violin looks in VSL's Vienna Instruments Pro, in a short video I assembled over an orchestral prototype I'm working on. Isn't it a bit like the Nineteenth Century Iron Age's mad utopia of musical automata?




Sound libraries and extended techniques

Grown in the European academia, I always feel a strong need for extended techniques. That is, those strange sounds going over the usual round technique used for crafting beautiful melodic lines, or the smart spiccato with which you push your most frantic rhythm ahead. Scratchy digging, feeble harmonics, colliding multiphonics.

These aren't very commonly included in sound libraries. I’m grateful to the handful of houses making sample collections including at least some of them.

While testing my new VSL-based orchestral machine, I moved in territories very dangerous for a humble sampler. And tried to replicate the mad violin of Sciarrino’s Capricci. Nearly impossible to play with a real instrument, virtually impossible to make with virtual instruments.

Yet, there are some interesting findings in exploring the extremes. And trying to recreate a, so to say, naturally produced sound can teach a lot on the nature of instrument virtualization.



Sound maps extending over 128 entries

Keyswitching can be done better with a common reference map, allowing for easy exchange of the same code between different sound libraries. The same Expression Map or Articulation Set can then be used or easily adapted to the various libraries in your arsenal.

My personal maps for libraries like VSL and Spitfire are modeled on the UACC map. Spitfire is not always coherent with their own map, and it is easy to understand why, thinking on how little conventional are some or their libraries like Tundra or Uist.

VSL has no reference organization system, but they have tried to standardize their presets over the years. Collections from different generations have a similar system to organize the many articulations, but these systems different between the different generations, and the different instrument families. The very flexible Vienna Instruments allows however to create your own presets, and set them as they better fit your workflow.

It may seem strange, but the 128 slots allowed by the Spitfire's UACC map are not always enough. My personal map contain many nuances, going from the basic sustain vibrato or non vibrato, or espressivo, to things like molto sul pont., with heavy pressure, or various degrees of measured tremolo. Overthinked and overworked, maybe, but an effective tool to avoid thinking to the mechanics behind the libraries when actually making music.

Something I've done in Logic to get more articulation slots is to duplicate the first 128 entries to the second group of 128 in the Articulation Set, to fill all the available 256 slots. This way, any variation to the base articulations can fall in a slot mirroring the ones in the first group. For example, there are two basic Longs at #1 and #2 in the UACC map. If you need two more, you can place them at #129 and #130.

Blending Spitfire Audio and VSL strings

Spitifire Audio's London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO) Strings are a fantastic addition to a contemporary composer's box of tricks. Open tuning, raw and sincere bowing, an exploration of the strings from bridge to touch (and back).

However, they lack true legato. You can try to fake it with the Release control. An Attack Offset control would have been a nice touch, but it is not there.

So, I did some tests with combining LCO Vivid Violins with some legato patches from other libraries. "Vivid" are the (nearly) ordinary articulation of this library. These are the LCO Vivid Violins alone:



Together with the six violins of the Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) Chamber Strings, they resulted in a too big ensemble (despite the much lower volume I mixed the VSLs in):



On the contrary, only two of the VSL Dimension Violins worked fine, with the right ensemble size and the LCO timbre prevailing in the mix:



The VSL Dimension Violins alone, with the performance trill patch selected; there is some apparent phasing, but this is typical of this particular library, exhibiting its full beauty only when everybody is playing together:



All of them placed in the Teldex wide via MIR. No patch changes, only the raw ones.

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.

Instruments and their colors

For my virtual instrments, I like to use earth-inspired color codes
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Logic's undervalued plugins

Logic plugins are often undervalued, just because they are free
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VSL Vienna Imperial vs. Embertone Walker 1955

Stiil looking for the perfect sampled piano, today I did another comparison. I pounded some Bach and Mussorgsky on the Walker (v1) and the Vienna Imperial. Both set at 64 samples of buffer. Both read from an external SSD and controlled by a VPC-1. Playback via a pair of Mackie HR-824 mkI.

The pedal, first of all: while neither the VSL nor the Embertone feature half pedal, the pedal release in the former is more gradual, and can approximate at least the effect of continuous release of the pedal. Not so the Walker, that is immediately cut. It is as if one has a long release in the sample, the other lacks it. Maybe the variable release sampling made by VSL also regards sustained notes.

The on/off activation of both the damper pedal and the soft pedal seems better balanced in the Imperial. With the Walker I can hear a change in volume when pressing one of the pedals. The Imperial only changes timbre. Also, I feel the pedal change noise to be too strong with the Walker. While missing some important features, I feel the pedal behavior of the VSL more natural, with even a hint of repedalling (that shouldn't be there, but can be clearly noticed).

The Walker seems to do ribattuto notes better. This is surprising, considering that it seems to remain behind during normal playing. Play big chords in the "Pictures at an Exhibition", and the sound comes a little after you expect it. It also seems to miss some notes sometimes. Not so with the Imperial, always perfectly in time.

The Walker lacks a little on the fff side of dynamics. The Imperial on the opposite side, with ppp always sounding a bit too loud. Both have a gorgeous sound, an excellent representation of the original instruments – rich and well blended, much on the wooden side, the old Steinway, clear and focused, a bit steely, the Bösendorfer.

Still, I find that the most playable piano in my arsenal is The Grandeur. The sample is not as accurate, yet I feel there is something right in the scripting.