I have been asked so many times what DAW and sample libraries and other things I’m using so I decided to write a more or less complete rundown of my main orchestral template. I guess this is going to be a tl;dr kind of post for most people, but for those who are genuienly interested in this kind of stuff it will hopefully be worth reading. I for one, who often find myself poring over the nerdiest recording articles thinkable on Sound on Sound and other places, would certainly not mind reading something like this from other composers. So, here we go.
My DAW of choice is REAPER. I’ve been using it for about six years now (before that I used Cubase for a long time), and I like it. Like all other DAW’s it has its issues, but unlike other DAW’s, which tend to force users into a certain paradigm, REAPER is extremely flexible and configurable. Not only can you set it up to fit almost any type of audio production workflow, you can also customize its appearance. Which is a good thing I suppose, as the default theme is kind of fugly (I’m using the REACTION theme). Add to that its many, many features and extremely low resource usage and you have a really cool DAW, especially considering its tiny price tag of $60.
This is probably going to seem a little weird in this day and age, but for sample library playback I’m using rgc:audio sfz+. Yup that’s right, that’s a decade-old soundfont player. So what gives? Well the thing is, it was a soundfonts that got me started with using sampled instruments around 2005 or so. When I moved from an SB Live! to software-based sample players I saw no reason not to stick with the format and kept converting my new libraries to sf2. Old habits die hard I guess. Today, when probably 90% of all my samples are sf2 (the rest being sfz/txprog) it’s going to take some VERY compelling reasons for me to switch to another format.
Now if anyone wonders how I can get decent sound quality out of soundfonts, of all things, let me dispose of a common myth right away: a soundfont is just a sample format, nothing more. A properly recorded, mapped and programmed sf2 instrument is in no way inferior to any other sample format in terms of sound quality. Obviously they lack the advanced scripting features and such of modern formats, but there are ways around that. Sf2’s get a bad rap mostly because the format has been around since the early days of home sampling and a lot of the free soundfonts littering the net are remnants of this era. An instrument recorded at 22kHz with a cheap PC mic and then trimmed and looped to reduce file size (remember, 64MB RAM and dial-up was the standard back in the format’s heyday) is just not a fair representation of the format.
Now as for still using sfz+ after all these years, it’s mainly a matter of convenience and economy. I have used it for a loooong time, so I know it inside out. It’s virtually bug-free and very stable, even running over a 32-bit bridge. Due to its age it’s also very lightweight, which lets me use dozens of instances at low buffers even on this ageing computer. And it has disk streaming, which is crucial for me. With only 8GB RAM I couldn’t load my entire orchestral template even if I wanted to. And yeah, RAM is cheap but I also dislike waiting several minutes for projects to load. It doesn’t take more than that to lose that idea you had, you know?
So, looking at the alternatives, Kontakt and other major league samplers are simply way out of my price range. As for the cheaper ones, very few of them have disk streaming. In fact the only one that does to my knowledge does not play soundfonts instead (Wusikstation). LinuxSampler has both disk streaming and sf2 support, but is not multi-core compatible. SampleLord seems to have ceased development. So, there is simply not a lot of options.
And this setup works fine for my needs. Why fix it if it isn’t broken, right?
First of all I should mention that this template is not something I sat down and created in a couple of weeks; it has evolved over something like four years now. As I’ve added new libraries to my collection I’ve tried to incorporate them where needed, replacing things I weren’t happy with and expanding on things that were already there but maybe too limited. It’s in a constant state of change and has gone through many revisions, and will likely go through many more. So what I’m describing to you here is where it’s at right now, in April 2015. One year from now a lot of things will probably have changed.
Also, I’m keeping all pieces I’m currently working on in the same project. This is to ensure that I’m getting a consistent sound between compositions, and so that I won’t have to trawl through older project in search of a particularly nice strings setup or whatever.
As you can see in the screenshots below, I’m not using keyswitches (except for in one place — read on). While this would certainly be possible to do with REAPER scripting and would reduce clutter by leaps and bounds, I’m just not a fan of the concept of keyswitching. First of all, I work mostly with a 61 key MIDI controller. What if I need to change articulations in the middle of recording a part in the upper octaves, and the keyswitches are presently below the playable area of the keyboard? I do have a 76 key controller as well, but I use it mostly for piano stuff as it has weighted keys. Secondly, my keyboard skills aren’t so great that I can easily perform long passages in one take anyway, so being able to switch articulations on the fly isn’t that important to me. Keeping everything on separate tracks not only gives me a better overview of the sounds at my disposal, it also lets me morph between articulations using CC#11 (e.g. brass swells or non-vibrato to vibrato violins).
It may look like a big mess, but everything is color-coded and logically subdivided into groups so I can find anything I need within seconds. From top to bottom, here’s what I’m using:
For reverb I’m using four instances of ValhallaDSP’s ValhallaRoom set up on four busses, namely Ambience, Front, Mid and Back. For more about this setup, see here. The Valhalla verbs are great. Between VRoom and ValhallaVintageVerb, my reverb needs are pretty much covered these days and it feels good to have at least one part of my setup that I don’t need to worry about.
For piano, I’m using PianoOne. I have several sampled pianos and many of them quite large and detailed (Ivy Audio Piano, Salamander, Maestro Concert Grand, City Piano). But for some reason I like this little freebie best. While I know my way around a keyboard fairly well, I’m hardly a pianist per se so virtual pianos are kind of a grey area to me. I chose this one because it feels right when I play it and it sits well in an orchestral mix. I’ve been thinking about getting some decent commercial piano library, but honestly, it would be wasted on me. I don’t use piano enough to motivate the expense, and chances are I wouldn’t be able to tell if its any better than the free samples I have anyway.
The Strings folder contains five instances of sfz+ providing me with all the sections in the strings family (1st and 2nd violins, violas, cellos, contrabasses) plus a concert harp. Each section has a number of articulations loaded. How many for each depends on how likely I am to use that section for anything beyond the basics. For example, both 1st and 2nd violins have 10 articulations, while the violas have only half of that. No I don’t dislike violas or anything like that, I just find that trills, runs and stuff like that are better left to the violins.
As for libraries used, there is far too much stuff in there to list everything channel by channel. I’m mainly using M-Audio ProSessions Orchestral Strings (Sonivox) for the meat and potatoes type of articulations (sustain, staccato, pizzicato) and Advanced Orchestra and Prosonus for tremolos, trills and other articulations. Almost all articulations are then layered with samples from other libraries for added lushness. There’s a little bit of everything in the “layer strings”, basically I’ve chosen whatever complements the main samples best. Some Roland samples, some Miroslav, some DigitalSoundFactory, some EWQLSO and also a number of nice freebies.
The harp is Soundscan Complete Harp. In addition to the plucked samples it has a lot of glisses and other one-shot articulations that are difficult to map in any sensible way, so I’m using a separate track for these, dropping the wave files in from REAPER’s media explorer and adjusting pitch and speed where necessary. This track is routed to the same output as the plucked harp.
Round-robin triggering in the staccato strings (and other sections) are created with a REAPER script that alternates between different MIDI channels.
The brass has only two instances of sfz+. As with strings, the brass is largely based on Sonivox samples from the M-Audio Prosessions discs. These samples are quite mellow though and not suitable for anything above mf playing, so I’m augmenting them with a few other libraries. The ff horns and trumpets are EWQL, ff trombones are from Roland and Advanced Orchestra. The solo horn is also EWQL, while solo trumpet, tenor trombone and bass trombone are actually from the old UoI samples. The maj/min trumpet chords are DigitalSoundFactory, the trumpet and brass fx are old ProjectSAM freebies.
Brass is admittedly a weak spot for me, both as far as composing for it goes, and in terms of samples. While I do have quite a bit to choose from, none of my current libs are great in the brass department so I tend to use brass strategically, i.e. for reinforcing other sections and handling thematic melodies rather than doing full brass accompaniments.
I’ve experimented briefly with layering the brass just like the strings, but it didn’t give me the results I was hoping for. Basically, the brass sections ended up sounding far too large and synthy. I will probably attempt it again though, as it is likely a matter of picking the right samples for layering.
Woodwinds have three instances of sfz+ and a mishmash of free and commercial samples. As you can see I don’t use section samples except for staccatos and runs/trills. I find it much more useful having the separate instruments of each section available for playing harmonies than having them mashed into one for unison playing.
The piccolo is Roland. The solo flute is MSLP while the other two are Roland and IxoxFlute. The solo clarinet is some soundfont freebie I’ve had for years (it’s just called Clarinet, I don’t know who created it) while the other two are UoI and Maestro Clarinet. Bass clarinet is Garritan Pocket Orchestra. Oboes: Zero-G, Miroslav and Oboe_Stereo (also a free soundfont). Bassoons and contrabassoon: UoI, Miroslav, Garritan. Cor anglais is from Miroslav. All other articulations are Advanced Orchestra except for the piccolo fx which is also an old freebie by Tim Montijo.
All sustain woodwind channels have the midiPolyphony plugin by Pizmidi to make them monophonic and re-triggering. This, along with some edits to the pitch envelopes of the samples, allows for more natural phrasing
My choral setup is pretty basic. Female aah’s from Alchemy Player and male aah’s from the Ensemble Aahs free soundfont, panned to the sides. I usually double these with a mixed female/male patch from Miroslav for a massive choral sound. The soft female choir is from Soundscan Acoustic & Synth Choirs, as is the children’s choir. I also have the syllable choirs from Miroslav set up with keyswitches for creating sung phrases. Which kind of works, if masked with other instruments.
The chorus section is pretty new to this template and not finished, as evident from the blank tracks. I have some additional stuff but I’m trying to add things as I go rather than just loading everything all at once, as choral parts aren’t an integral component of my writing anyway.
If there’s one thing I have more of than I can find a use for, it’s orchestral percussion. Almost everything I use are free samples to boot, the main part of it being the old but still lovely G-Town Church library by Tobias Marberger. I think the only commercial percussion samples in my template are 8Dio Epic Room Percussion, which I don’t even use a whole lot.
Aside from G-Town there’s also Cinesamples Triangle, ProjectSAM Timpani, Action Drums Cinematic Edition, Felt Force One Selections, The Beat Aesthetic Taiko, EWQL Free orchestral chimes, JH Chimes, Stamperadam xylophone and celeste, Worra’s Brass Glockenspiel, various small percussion from Westgate and Ethan Winer, ramjac Quinto, kostasvomvolos waterphone. All of these free samples I’ve collected over the years, which is kind of amazing.
Ethnic & misc tracks
This is the most recent addition to the template and largely incomplete, right now it contains just a few things I used in Scarabesque. Namely R.A.W. Egyptian Mijwiz, bouzouki from Sonic Reality’s World Instrument Collection, a tambura soundfont which I don’t remember where I got (have had it for ages) and a renaissance lute from BOB Early Music.
At the very bottom of the project there’s a few audio tracks used for loops, sound effects etc.
As you can see there’s not actually a whole lot of audio processing going on in this project. The reverb buss has Flux Stereo Tool on it for some added width, but I’m not sure whether it’s actually needed. Some tracks have a slight bit of corrective EQ, a few percussion instruments have a tiny bit of compression. All section group tracks have the Proximity vst as an insert to help setting the correct z-depth. That’s it.
So, there you have it. Sorry about the overall lack of links, but there’s just so much stuff listed above. If there’s something you’re curious about, google it.