Let the samples dictate the music

No matter what orchestral libraries you are using, I’m willing to bet there are at least one instrument or articulation in them that you aren’t crazy about. In all likelihood, there are several. This is partly because no sample library is perfect for everyone and for every situation, and partly because sample libraries have weak spots like all other products. The reasons behind these weak spots may vary (time/budget constraints, quality control, poor craftmanship, or even all of the above), but the simple fact is that you are very unlikely to find a library that doesn’t have at least something┬áthat makes you wonder what the hell the developers were thinking.

In many cases it’s a certain articulation that doesn’t sound or behave like you would expect, or that some seemingly obvious thing is missing from the library. Occasionally though, you will come across an instrument or a whole section that is a complete turd. The players in the section may be badly out of tune with each other, the samples may have an unusably slow attack, or some notes have a completely different timbre compared to the others, or whatever. Basically stuff that you can’t really fix after the fact and is forced to live with.

So, you have a bunch of more or less useless samples on your hands. What to do?

Well, this is one of the big reasons I’m an advocate of mixing different orchestral libraries. The more you have to choose from, the less you will be inpacted by finding a dud in your go-to library. When this happens you can just have a look at the other libraries in your arsenal. And before you say, “I have nothing with the same quality/detail as library A!”, ask yourself this: which is better, to have a mulit-velocity, multi-mic, multi-RR, 24 bit instrument that sounds like crap, or something more basic that despite its technical limitations does a better job of sounding like what it’s supposed to sound like?

I know, there’s a bit of prestige involved here. If you have high quality libraries you tend to want to use them. To sound professional, you need to stick to professional tools… right?

Wrong. What you need to do is trust your ears and your instinct. If it sounds better and works better, it IS better. The pro approach isn’t about only using the most advanced and expensive stuff out there. It’s about figuring out what gets the job done with a minimum amount of fuss. After all, being “pro” about it means understanding that time is money. So swallow your pride, disregard nothing because of price tag and just use whatever the hell works best for the task at hand.

Having said that, you can’t realistically own every single orchestral library ever made. So there will inevitably be situations where you’ll find that nothing that you have works for what you have in mind. You probably know how it goes:

“So le’ts see, I need the cellos and bassoons playing short staccatos here while the flutes and first violins play unison 16th note up-down chromatic runs…”

And then you spend three days struggling and despairing because your cellos and bassoons have just long, sloppy staccato samples, the flutes and violins don’t come with chromatic run articulations, and faking it with midi sounds like ass. At which point you start yelling at your libraries for being crap and calling your bank about a second mortgage on your house to afford something better.

Let me suggest an alternate approach: let the samples dictate the music, and not the other way around.

I know, orchestral libraries are designed to let you mimic what a real orchestra does. But even after decades of technological progress they still tend to fall short in one way or another. While it would be nice if you could just pick whatever colors you fancy from your orchestal palette and have them work right away, for anything you can imagine, we’re not quite there yet and probably won’t be for some time.

Until that happens (if ever), you’ll be much better off figuring out where the strenghts of your samples lie and playing to them, instead of constantly trying to fit square pegs into round holes. That might sound limiting, but if you think about it it’s no different from what someone composing for a real orchestra does. Real instruments have lots of limitations that you need to take into account. Sampled instruments have even more limitations, being less expressive versions of the real thing, but if you’re aware of these limitiations you can avoid them.

After all, it’s YOU who’s composing the music and I guarantee you that no one else is going to show up complaining about the lack of fast staccatos and chromatic runs. That’s all in your head. If you stick to what your samples are good at, and use them creatively, your listeners will be happy.

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2 Responses to Let the samples dictate the music

  1. Pingback: New article: Let the samples dictate the music |

  2. Charles Torian says:

    As an oboist, and conductor, I have experience with professional orchestras and professional, as well as amateur, concert bands. Even in the ‘top-tier’ groups there are strengths and comparative-weaknesses. We don’t stop performing because of the weaknesses. Instead, we capitalize on the strengths.

    Sample libraries reflect the same kind of thing. I have one library, for example, in which a single oboe note (the B-below 3rd-space C, has a distinctly different tone quality from all the others. It’s pitch is accurate, …just the tone quality seems more ‘muffled.’ Because of my experience, I accept the irregularity as one of the ‘normal hazards’ and ‘live with’ the anomaly. I have heard commercial orchestra recordings with similar ‘issues.’

    In the electronic realm, we often hear disparaging comments about “too much accuracy” (typically directed toward tempo and rhythm), but I simply accept much of what I hear as being generated from people who might not be capable of that kind of accuracy. I reflect that tone quality could evoke similar discussion.

    My intent is not to generate an argument, but to make this observation. Absolute perfection is virtually impossible. The real issue is one where each of us must determine just how tolerant we are to subtle intolerances.

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