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Outdated pianos – is the new trend loving something old?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.

Switching to a bigger computer monitor

So, you are thinking of switching to a bigger monitor, because you want to see your orchestral score in full size. Great idea! Accustomed to using pen or pencil on huge A3 music sheets, this seems the best thing we orchestral composers can do.

With the huge number of 4K – also known as Ultra High Definition (UHD) – computer monitors on the market, you may go right with one of them. Only to find that maybe they make everything look too small. At 3840 x 2160 pixels, things go in the micro dimension.

The old standard video definition on the Mac was 110 points per inch (ppi), and 96 it was on Windows. Hi-Definition mode (HiDPI), or Retina in Apple's jargon, has upped it to 220 ppi. To do it, they simply use twice the pixels per side (that is, four pixels for a single older pixel), and make everything look smoother.

So, on a 27" monitor, if you keep the original maximum definition you end up with about 160 ppi. This makes everything look too small. If you go Retina, you get too big text and icons, and a video definition that might be equal – or even lower – than your older monitor. That is, a typical 1920 x 1080 pixels, or the old Full HD 1080p.

Both Mac and Windows have a way to scale what you see in their preferences. Typically, on a 27" monitor you will want 2560 x 1440, that is the equivalent of the aged Quadruple High Definition (QHD). The effect of the scaling is not as good as with Retina, but good enough.

If you have an old Mac or PC, however, you might not immediately get UHD. To get it, on a Mac you can install the cheap and excellent shareware SwitchResX, and choose the preferred resolution. Be sure to never use "lower resolution" modes, because they would force the display to switch to a real resolution that is not native, and look fuzzy. With SwitchResX you can also automatically switch resolution depending on the foreground app – for example, a lower resolution when jockeying with files in the Finder, QHD for working with orchestral scores, and full UHD for watching movies.

With older computers you might end up with a 4K resolution, but only at 30 instead of 60 Hz. This is a slow frequency, that might make mouse and windows movements, scrolling and video not totally smooth. Speech can appear a fraction of a second too late. If you can stand it, it works. If you can't, either you switch to a low resolution from the display, or get a better video card or Mac. (As for my experience: I can barely notice it with video, and only occasionally; not a major issue for me).

And yes, I got an HP Z27, and am using it with an old Mac a 30 Hz, with software scaling to QHD. The picture is a bit small, but there is a lot of room for my orchestral scores. And if I want things bigger, I can just magnify them with Ctrl-Up, or momentarily switch to the lower, gorgeous, Retina resolution.

Better yet, since I find the user interface elements (text, icons, menus) too small, I can lower the scaled resolution to 2304 x 1296, that is a close approximation to what a 24" display looks like at Full HD.

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 is much quicker in SP. You don't use CC1, you use a meta-control that you can globally assign to CC1, but also 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.