Musical Instruments

Mixing compressors and equalizers

I’m very much attracted by complex suites of mastering tools like iZotope Ozone or FabFilter. I don’t like the default settings of Ozone 9, but that’s expected, and can be easily dealt with by using the plethora of fine-tuning controls it offers.

In the end, after having finally found a way to deal with it, I find that Ozone’s processors are very transparent and very effective. They sound good, if not overused, and can be on a par of some of the best stand-alone effects.

Still, I’ve my favorite dynamic processors and equalizers. Among my favorites are Softube’s modeled Manley Variable Mu Limiter/Compressor and Massive Passive EQ. I often set them in chain, with some subtle parallel compression adding a bit of tube saturation, and a light middle/side widening and smooth crafting of frequencies.

Then come Ozone, with more surgical refinements: that precise lowering os resonance around 500 and 3500 Hz to avoid nasality; some dynamic equalizing to prevent boomy basses of annoying frequencies; some spectral shaping to remove sibilants and smoothing the highs; a bit of low end focus; and finally a hint of transparent maximizing, to balance everything and make it compliant with consumer speakers.

So, I first craft my sound, and then do all the final retouching to make it stay strong.

Should I add a vintage analog mixer to my digital setup?

I have my old Allen & Heath GS3 mixing board sitting next to me, unused, there just as a talisman for the studio. When new it was a mid-range mixer, priced about like a lightly-used second-hand city car, dedicated to the then growing multitrack project studio.

The mixer could be stay connected both to sources (synthesizers, voice microphones, drum mics – you name them) and, at the same time, to the multitrack tape recorder. This one was typically eight tracks, the exact number of the busses in the mixer. But the count could go even higher, in particular with the then growing market of multitrack digital recorders (of which the Alesis ADAT was probably the most famous).

Pressing a switch would have reversed the audio signal path. So, there was a first phase in which you recorded audio sources, making a pre-mix that would have ended into a number or tracks lower than the available inputs; and a second phase, where you reversed the inputs, and could use the same internal equalizers and the connected dynamic processors and modulating effects to process the recorded tracks. These could then be mixed down to a stereo master, to its dedicated set of jacks.

Despite not being a high-end mixer, it had interesting audio qualities, with a fat sound and very musical (even if very limited) equalization filters. While not imparting that open sound typical of much more expensive mixers, its sound possessed in any case a three dimensional quality, sort of a liquid quality making the sound sources seem to be floating in space. Exhibiting a strong low-end, it was very much loved by indie rock and electronic dance producers.

Its construction is all TL072P and NE5532 opamps, good middle-range chips widely used in quality audio circuits. At the time, integrated circuits were considered of a lower quality, compared to the discrete circuits of the previous high-end consoles. Also, the lack of transformers on the inputs made this class of audio devices considered to sound flatter. As a concession to high-quality design, this mixer has discrete channel cards with a clean layout, made less expensive by attaching them to a single front plate instead of separate channel strips. It’s all metal frame, made to destroy things during transportation.

The heart of the beast

I’m wondering if using it as a summing board would make sense. Just eight channels from the audio interface, down to the stereo bus. Unity volume or the like. Digital technology has made great advancements in these years, but there is still something missing, that glossy patina that analog gears imparted to the sound. Often darker, less detailed, but with that hint of tasty saturation and real-life volume that seems to have gone lost with most digital gears.

Should I take the snakes out of the locker, and give a new life to this old chap?

Mixing VSL classic libraries with the new Synchron ones

When composing or making a prototype of existing compositions, I’m using a mix of everything. The core of my soundscape is made of VSL instruments. Of the many variants of their libraries, I usually rely on the old VI series – but in some cases I prefer to go Synchronized, because it makes sense. For example, if using Dimension Strings mostly as a compact ensemble instead of separate players, SYzd is much easier to deal with. They are more compact, and accessing the individual players is more immediate from the Synchron Player’s mixer page. With Special Keyboards and Plucked Instruments I like the better labelling of the SYzd versions.

When needing Dimension Strings in more complex setups, with highly variable setups of individual players, I prefer the old VI version, because I don't have to deactivate all the added impulses and effects before using them. There shouldn't be any difference in the available articulations. The same with Dimension Brass, that I only have in the VI version. The recently added Synchron Stage presets for the MIR room simulator makes very easy integrating VI instruments with any other Syzd or Synchron library.

At the moment, VI collections are easier for me, because I've create all the presets by following the same schema. So, I have a unique map for everything. If I want to layer strings from different libraries, the same map will drive them all from a single MIDI channel. Layering is more a matter of expanding an instrument with other perspectives on the same instrument.

Several of the VSL instruments are still only available as VI collections, so there is no choice. Woodwinds, for example, or the more exoteric brass, are not available as SYzd or Synchron instruments. And many of the most advanced articulations, like the ones in the Vienna Horn or the Appassionata Strings, are only in the VI collections.

I'm still not fully in love with the Synchron world, but I've been forced by the BBO series into it. I wouldn't probably have got Synchron Strings Pro (SSP) without needing a matching strings library for their Big Bang Orchestra (BBO). It's a fantastic library, but I still feel it is not the best choice for what I do mostly (that is classical music). Yet, I know that we are in a courtship affair, in particular when thinking to move to a larger simulated space, more in line with what film orchestras have accustomed us to love.

BBO contains some incredible instruments. And Synchron FX Strings 1 is probably one of the most precious tools I have in my arsenal. I'm therefore switching my VI collections to the *Synchron Stage Wide* room in MIR, so that I can match them to the new collections. They all integrate really well, like good sisters. And the Synchron Stage A hall can be really impressive, even if not the sound I would have chosen before some others if following my istinct.

So, I'm now living in a hybrid setup, with a core made of VI, extensions from the Synchron/BBO series, and some Synchronized instruments. All blended (very well) inside MIR PRO.

Preview: VSL Synchron Bösendorfer Imperial

I collect sampled pianos. And I put them on a fight, when a new one arrives in my collection. As soon as I've purchased the Standard version of the Bösendorfer Imperial, I have therefore immediately compared it to their old Vienna Imperial (released in 2009).

They are really different instruments. The way to approach them is different. Bösendorfer Imperial seems to be smoother than Vienna Imperial, whose dynamics I've always found to lean toward the forte. The position of the piano relative to the player is different, with the Bösendorfer Imperial being farther, more into the space than under your fingers.

Vienna Imperial is a stronger piano. A studio piano, with a marked desire to be first, forward, in your face. Bösendorfer Imperial is more laid back. It has a larger dynamic range, but it dominates it better.

The room mics in the Standard version are fine for me. To be true, I immediately switched from the Room Mix (including the surround mics) to the Decca tree, containing all the room information I need. Others will want to enjoy the 3D feeling of the additional room mics, that can even be used for the new Auro 3D spatialization system.

As for me, I would instead like to have the Tube mic, only included in the Extended version, for that slightly far-from-the-hammers sound; but the included Condenser mic seems to have the right balance between brightness and smoothness, never being harsh. And, mixed with the Mid 1 pair it gives a perfect blend, incisive and full.

As much as I would like to focus on a single piano, I understand that the Bösendorfer Imperial is a much more "classical music" piano, whereas the Vienna Imperial is still a more "jazz club" piano. So, both seem to be useful tools in production. And both are incredible fun!

Incommunicable microtuning

Not many DAWs, notation programs, players, virtual synths and sound libraries allow for alternative tuning and microtonal accidentals. Some allow them, but then are unable to communicate to other software the altered notes.

For example, a DAW or music program may allow for microtonal accidentals, but then send out a message that most sound players can't understand (like VST Note Expression vs MIDI Tuning Standard).

Alternative tuning is useful for music in non-Western standards (Post-Minimalism meets Ancient India). Or for ancient music (for example, tuning a harpsichord to match a lute). Or for experimental music (Harry Partch-inspired microtuning scales, or the mystical Pythagorean tuning).

Microtonal accidentals are used in much contemporary music or hybrid music, but also to transcribe as finely as possible folk music. Some experimental rock/EDM is using clusters, and going over the walls of the Equal tempered system.

Yet, not all the DAWs, notation programs, and sound generators can communicate their alternative tuning and exoteric accidentals. A world open to the world in theory, but less in practice.

A missing standard for keyswitching

The lack of an universal and advanced standard for keyswitching makes me crazy. I’m one of those who prefer not to insert keyswitches in the score, nor use separate tracks for playing techniques. I want a meta-code to drive my technique changes.

What I did, in making my articulation sets for Logic, was to first create my own personal articulations/techniques map, starting from a Spitfire Audio UACC map repeated two times (UACC s 1-128, Logic 1-256). This means that all my maps will have the same articulation types at the same ID. Selection messages will start from those fixed positions.

Unfortunately, not all libraries are coherent in how they map their articulations/techniques, so I'm still using too many articulation sets and expression maps. With VSL VI libraries I built my own presets, all organized in the same way. But this is not possible with all libraries.

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.

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.

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.

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