The sample quality myth: Part 2

Know your instruments

Working with a sample library designed to mimic a live acoustic instrument, the key to getting convincing results is learning as much as you can about its real-life counterpart. It doesn’t matter whether if it’s a drum kit, an acoustic guitar or an entire orchestra of instruments. If your goal is to make it sound like the real deal, you’re going to have to do some homework.

Just for fun, pick a random orchestral instrument or two and try to answer these questions:

– What instrument family does it belong to?
– How does it produce sound?
– What register does it belong to?
– What range does it have?
– What is its main strengths and limitations?
– What role does it have within its instrument family, and within the entire orchestra?
– Could you name at least two typical playing styles for this instrument?

If there’s one or more of these questions that you can’t answer at least vaguely, then you haven’t done your homework properly and you need to go back and put in the time to learn it. You don’t necessarily have to be anal about it. Having a general, superficial understanding of all orchestral instruments is certainly better than knowing the ins and outs of a few and nothing about the rest, as you’re going to be composing and arranging for an entire orchestra. For solo parts or other situations where an instrument is exposed and the need for realism is slightly higher, look it up when the need arises.

The absolutely best way of familiarizing yourself with an instrument is finding someone who is good at playing it, and letting them show you how it works and what it sounds like up close and personal. Maybe they will even put the instrument in your hands and teach you the basics of how to make it produce sound, if not actually play it. If you have a chance to do this, you should take it! I used to work with a guy who plays the contrabass, and he was more than happy to indulge me. Just a few hours here and there, trying to play this absurdly large and awkward instrument both with a bow and without, taught me more about string instruments than any online guide ever could.

But unless you happen to be friends with an entire orchestra of musicians who live nearby, this is of course not realistic for more than at most one or two instruments. The second best thing is youtube. There are thousands of videos of people playing all kinds of instruments on there and it’s not difficult finding what you might need. I heartily recommend Philharmonia Orchestra’s Instrument Guides as a starting point, but there’s also lots of other more advanced an in-depth stuff if you need it.

Learning all of this takes time — and you should experiment with the sample libraries you have all along so you get a clearer idea of where the differences between real and fake instruments lie — but eventually you will have accumulated a mental database of all these little details that make the difference between a convincing sound an unconvincing one.

Before you know it, you will have developed an understanding of what commonly goes where, and after that it gets easier and more fun. Once you know the conventional, traditional roles of the instruments, you can start using them in other ways, deliberately and for cool effects.

Next: The sample quality myth Part 3: Know the style you’re working in

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3 Responses to The sample quality myth: Part 2

  1. Pingback: The sample quality myth: New article series |

  2. Barry Tone says:

    Lol, when I was in high school band, we were lucky enough to have a substitute teacher who could conduct , so we were still able to practice our band music even if our band teacher was sick.. Anyway, I kinda started a trend with other band mates to trade instruments for a day, so they could play my trombone and I got to play their instrument…so I’ve winded up with a clarinet in my hands, a baritone, trumpet, baritone, trumpet, even the drums. Haha! Well, apparently I started a trend because by the end of the school year half of the band students were holding instruments that they didn’t know how to play. We sounded so awful …literally we were a high school band that sounded like the 5th grade band whenever we had a substitute. hehe, but that was really fun to try!

  3. Claire E. Net says:

    oh yeah…
    1. trombone –
    *brass,
    *buzz/ blowing air into it through buzzing lips
    *range (for me) the low F that’s roughly 1.5 octaves below middle C on the bass clef,
    and high Bb that’s almost an octave highter than middle C (but I’ve heard others who can play higher or lower)
    *strengths include that it’s durable and able to be left out in the cold…and you don’t have to deal with reeds or replacing strings…however, slide oil cream helps maintain it. weakness of the trombone is that one can get chopped lips after playing a lot of high notes or playing too long, Also, a trombone player has to take pauses to take a breath (unless you can do the circular breathing thing)…it’s also harder to play fast short staccato notes like a violinist. however, trombone is famous for its glissandos
    *not sure on the register or role of the instrument (my guess would be more so the lower bass parts for brass or lower bass counter melodies with similar parts to the baritone sax, baritone ,and bass clarinet.
    *jazz, concert, marching music

    2. violin
    *string
    *using a bow on a string to play or finger to pluck notes
    *range is the G below middle C and easily play up to high B about two octaves higher than middle C…however, beyond first position one could probably squeak out a high G to have a range that’s 3 octaves …not sure how much higher the harmonic notes are though on violin and I suppose one could technically play lower than the G below middle C if they purposely had their G string way out of tune to sound like a dead cow.
    * strenths is the ability to easily slur notes, play fast notes, play staccato notes easily, and not have to pause to take a breath like the trombone. Callous fingers are also easier to deal with to be able to play the violin longer than the trombone. Weakness is that for open notes it’s harder to play with vibrato (but one can use 4th finger instead on the next lower string). Violins can get easily out of tune in the cold, dry weather, or if it’s not played regularly… and you can’t drop several times and still be able to play it like the trombone. however, it’s possible to play 2 notes at the same time on violin using double stops on violin (which can’t be done on trombone).
    *high string instrument that often plays melodies and is very diverse for being commonly used to play parts in many instrument settings whether solo, in an orchrestra, celtic music, folk music,, accompany, country, or like revenge of the nerds)… and it doesn’t leave huge spit puddles either after being played….
    I could attempt to blabber on about recorder, piano, and viola, but I don’t want to torture you too much if you’re actually reading this. but I will say the piano is exceptional with it’s ability to play several notes at once which puts the violin to shame with its puny double stops in comparison…. all you have to do is lie across the keys to play a dozen notes ! : )

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