One of the most common issues I have with the latest line of “high quality” virtual instrument products is the lack of variety in the libraries they provide. If it is a brass library, they might give you a trombone with every articulation imaginable, but it is still only one trombone, either qualified best for one specific purpose or forcibly rounded out for many.
Not many people realize one of the greatest and most valuable methods for drying out and clearing a room- shelves loaded with books and other odds and ends. My workspace is a rough space of odds and ends, irregular shapes, nooks and crannies, and all sorts of places ideal for absorbing and dissipating sound waves. All those college textbooks, product manuals, books your parents bought you as gifts, anything… it’s ideal material to kill that room noise and give you a clear, dry tone ideal for sampling and recording, especially when coupled with good mic usage.
Brass instruments can get a little tricky to tell apart the further you go back, but a modern set of puzzles remains today in the families of the “more or less conical-bored” low and mid brass. Many people know well of the tuba (at least the BBb garden variety, not so much the half-dozen-odd if not more other kinds), and perhaps the Euphonium and the Baritone (although God help them tell the difference), but few can tell apart the plethora of German brasses. Exotic instruments like circular Eb Horns, Althorns, Tenorhorns (different from Tenor_Horns), Kaiser Tubas, Oval Baritones, Oval Euphoniums, Khulohorns, and so on and so on are commonplace throughout Germany. Let’s just say, any Organologist could find enough to write a thesis paper on!
In the world of independent sampling, one often runs into cases where they have an instrument with a range of pitches it can play but a strong desire to not make their sample library weigh in the gigabytes, much less have to deal with the (tens of) thousands of samples resultant from true chromatic sampling. In this case, they want to find the easiest method for sampling across the range of an instrument that will match a few criteria:
- The interval any individual sampled note can be stretched should not surpass a minor third. Major thirds are undesirable, but are in some cases, tolerable. Preferably, a major second is the most we *really* want to stretch if that’s possible.
- One must be cognizant of the “breaks” in the instrument, such as the partial changes of a trombone or the different registers of a clarinet, or the switches between different drums of the timpani. Also, the use of open strings and harmonics with open strings on bowed strings is yet another large consideration.
- Certain notes on certain instruments are troublesome due to the construct of that instrument or may not lend themselves to an even performance as others, for example, playing an in-tune note in 5th position of a trombone without having time provided to tune it during the session.
- The division of real notes and stretches should be fairly even.
A few months ago, we released VSCO 1.0, a free collection of some miscellaneous orchestral-themed sampled instruments. VSCO 1.0 was limited, and had some issues with user-friendliness among other things. However, now I’m hard at work over the next few weeks (read: months) revamping and replacing most of the old samples with new ones that are of much finer quality (read: not cut from random recording sessions of tracks I’ve made in the past or hastily played on borrowed instruments by me).
In VSCO 2, the plugin will behave as a single-instrument type of deal where the user loads up one instrument per instance. This will get through a few pesky bugs that were going on and will better play to Maize’s strong points. We’ll also be including multiple articulations per instrument, switchable by keyswitch, to allow more varied use. In addition, it’ll also have a slick new GUI, a broader and higher quality range of instruments, and more attention to detail with the samples.
First off, sorry for the long delay in news on the blog!
Over the summer we were super busy working on samples. which we kicked-off with a week-long intensive sampling session with VS members Samuel Hebert and Justin Belanger coming down from Canada to assist with the sampling. I then spent an entire month sampling more instruments in order to keep us busy for the next year. Best part, we got to record in a large auditorium and use a much nicer set of equipment than previous years (instead of a giant pile of SM-57’s).
Behold: the first step in sampling an instrument!
So yes, something we’ll be releasing quite a bit of in the next few months is brass. However, we did something that isn’t ordinarily done with brass libraries. If you look closely in the picture, you might see we stuck a ribbon mic behind the bell of the instrument to pick up on the warmth and sonorous elements of the timbre, then a large diaphragm condenser in front of the airstream to pick up on the airy, bright tone that projects from the instrument. This way, in a multi-mic environment, the end user can blend between the two to create the timbre they need for their piece.
And of course, for the reverb heads, there is the obligatory “ambient” mic. You can hear a live performance using just the ambient mics here (note that the noise will not be as present in the finished sample library). In between those two are some wide-spread mid mics which pick up the sound of the stage, which is quite nice when blended with the other mics.
Right now, I am sitting waiting for the stems from the sessions to slowly get mixed down… after that, they get sent off to be cut, tuned, and denoised and then it’s instrument-building time!
In the next couple weeks, look forward to more blogs covering ongoing sampling work and some of the behind-the-scenes on how it works.
Earlier this month, we announced we would be making a donation towards Luftrum’s KVR Charity Fund Drive equivalent of 1/4th of our monthly sales. Even without the release of a for-sale product, the generous donations and continued support of individuals around the world has enabled us to donate $50 to assist children in Syria. In addition, we also have auctioned off a special lifetime membership for a total of $40, and two product bundles as well. In all, we have raised a total of $115 to help the cause, which is a really fabulous prospect to think about. If a lone customer did not e-mail me letting me know about the charity fund drive, all this might not have happened.
Next year, we hope to be able to donate much more, and with the continued support and feedback from customers, that will definitely be possible!
Happy Halloween everyone! Here’s a fun little thing for your trick-or-treating, a small collection of spooky and strange sounds recorded during our sampling and sound effects work, now for free on our website. Be sure to check it out!
In other news, I recently aquired some nice new microphones thanks to purchases of our products and donations during the Xylophone three-day “gold rush”. I’ll be using these to record some great new instruments over the next few months. I’ll also be working with Camoshark again (the guy who was behind the recording of the Dan Tranh) to do some other really awesome ethnic and unusual instruments from his huge collection. Lastly, quite a few people have really enjoyed the very first instrument I put up for free almost half a year ago, a fretless zither. I have decided to start work on making a second higher-quality fretless zither using the new microphones and all the things I have learned from making these other instruments, so keep your eyes open for updates on that!
Here’s a little teaser of the next product we have coming:
& the Versilian Studios team
We are supporting the KVR fund drive for Save the Children run by Luftrum this year by offering a few of our products and a special lifetime subscription for bidding. All proceeds from the bidding go directly to Save the Children, a charity organization, with the intent of being sent to help children in Syria. Consider checking out the massive array of items available for bidding from a variety of amazing developers and companies around the world, which we are honored to be able to list our products next to.
Here’s what we are offering:
- two bundles of all the Versilian Studio products including: Dan Tranh ($25), Xylophone ($15), Tubular Bells ($10) and Zither (free). Available in 32- or 64-bit VST + AU and Kontakt format!
- One lifetime subscription to all VS products produced now and forever!
In addition, note that 25% of all our profits this month will be given to the charity at the end of the month. I’ll be blogging as we make progress and with the final total! I’ll also be putting up a few special side-projects this month to encourage donations including some small but unique sound effect libraries that will be available for free or donation.
One last bit of business- anyone visiting our store might notice that you get a 10% discount if you purchase two or more items. 🙂
I’ve noticed an opinion among a number of musicians and composers I have talked to who feel that virtual instruments and the whole area of “digital performance” is a danger to the realm of “physical performance”, and that the ability of a composer to generate a fairly realistic sounding “orchestra” (or any other ensemble) using a virtual instrument plugin, a DAW, and their computer is a threat to the livelihood of millions of performers around the world. This post is my personal reasoning on why that belief is false. With the release of the instrument library “Minimal” the other day, the first truly effective “play the whole orchestra at once” VI I have heard of, I feel that this is a very important topic.
Music always seems to be something musicians and composers perceive as “under attack”. I like to think of this feeling consciously as a kink of the psychological concept of Loss Aversion– when the feeling of losing one thing outweighs the feeling of gaining another (that’s why it is sometimes very challenging for some people to be open minded). Some composers might perceive that the availability of virtual instruments, DAWs, and notation software is threatening the way they were taught to write- paper, pencil, and piano. While new technology isn’t a big deal, the idea of their years if not decades of training and honing in on their technique with paper and a piano is being undermined by this new technology is extremely threatening. Orchestral musicians might similarly perceive that the rising quality and power of sampled orchestras could put them out of a job.
In a way, even the fact that you can instead pop a CD in your computer (or even just switch something on your mp3 player) and hear your favorite symphony in reasonably high fidelity should theoretically mean orchestras shouldn’t exist since you can just buy Beethoven’s Ninth on iTunes, but it doesn’t. This is because the orchestra is both a visual and human experience- when you go see one live, you really feel something on a higher level. Additionally, many orchestras also function on a sentimental level- playing holiday and pops concerts, drawing in crowds with familiar tunes and a family-friendly vibe you just don’t get from those cheesy old christmas CDs your parents used to play in the car once December rolled around. Lastly, a good number of orchestras have a broad range of alternative initiatives including workshops with area schools, side-venues, performances of original works, and recording for CDs and original soundtracks of games/films.
A great divide between the audience and the musician has always been a key part of making the magic of music. When we go to hear an orchestra or perhaps the theater to see a movie with an orchestral score, we don’t sit around and go “wasn’t that slowly-resolving perfect authentic cadence just the thing near the end and that pianissimo horn solo simply tear-inducing?” (well, maybe some of us do, but for most people…). To us, that bassoon line at the end might feel like an inside joke the composer is having with us, the “educated” (what does that word even mean anyway?) musicians, but to most people, it’s just this dottling little thing they hear and nothing more. It’s not a double-reed, expensive, and highly expressive woodwind instrument- it’s just another color in the wash that is the orchestra. When there comes to be a time when even an uneducated “audience member” can buy a virtual instrument and PLAY and orchestra, how terrified we as musicians and composers should be! But they don’t know music theory! But they don’t know the names of the instruments, and yet they play string patches and brass tuttis!
But think for a bit first. There’s that thing coming up on us again, putting on alarms in our heads- loss aversion. We hate it when our “property” of education, or the instrument we play, or our compositional style seems to be trampled upon by technology. The logic put in our heads by this principle says “If everyone can be a “composer” or a “musician”, then supply/demand means there will be too little demand and too great of a supply,” but that’s simply not true. If there is a town with one expert blacksmith and then suddenly a dozen amateur blacksmiths move in, the expert is still going to 1. get all the good jobs and 2. now he can have apprentices he can charge to train under him. The expert blacksmith is probably more likely to see the other smiths as competitors instead of possible future apprentices or partners due to loss aversion, just as the veteran composer fears the young composers instead of seeing them as apprentices and partners.
So that’s the first thing. Composers still exist because there always needs to be the expert blacksmith to train the apprentices, and orchestras still exist because there’s nothing like sitting in front of a living orchestra. Even if we all forget how to play our instruments in a thousand years, I can promise you they will be “acting orchestras” where they pretend to play orchestral music from our time period over a recording or virtual performance (or, just like the sackbut, be revived in modern times by tasteful people like me).
On the note of live performance, there is so much humanity in the physical performance that it is simply mathematically impossible to capture every little bit of a “live impulse” of a player and make it useable for digital playback. Technology such as crossfading, extreme deep sampling with real legato intervals, and all sorts of wacky keyswitch-controller mayhem allow the patient and expert digital composer to approximate something close to realism. But guess what. It’s hard to do, even for the greatest of the greats. That means that the time when you can fake a real human just by being an average Joe pressing keys is extremely distant. Even with that, there’s still a lot more that has to be accounted for- slight variance with intonation, velocity, and timing. Theoretically you’d need to sample a smooth gradient of velocities from nothing to full tilt, and no one has yet dared to spend the ridiculous amount of time and money required to do that. There is a point at which it simply becomes too impractical to continue (somewhere around 24x Random Robin multisampling and 32 velocity layers I think).
When you reach the point at which it would simply be cheaper to buy an oboist a beer and convince them to give you a good rate for playing in your piece than to buy that $500 25 GB extension that offers 196kHz, 32-bit realistic oboe sqwaks and off-color notes to add character to the 100 GB oboe-only library (watch out EastWest, this one is gunna be mine!), you know that we’ve pretty much gone as far as we can.
In the world of Jazz and even in Classical, there’s the other matter of improvisation. This can be in the form of rubato or rather in the form of taking a whole solo or candenza. Modern playback systems don’t have a way to deal with this yet, and that kind of personal touch is extremely hard to copy.
Next, there’s the “selling” your soundtrack or OST through the idea that it is played by a real orchestra.
I have heard lots of game soundtracks that are obviously EWQL SO (it’s fun to try to guess which patches they use and then go see if you’re right), but when someone sticks “Played by the World-Famous London Symphony Orchestra” on their soundtrack it definitely sounds more legitimate to a customer, doesn’t it? In the Classical CD biz’ people might decide which CD to buy depending on the orchestra or conductor and even down to what season it was! Although the average consumer is much less picky, it’s still cool to brag to your friends and say “but this game soundtrack was played by a real orchestra, not General MIDI, whoever that is!”
I remember reading an interview when Age of Mythology first came out (it has been a lot longer than I thought) where Steven Rippy or whoever the individual in the interview was mentioned how extremely fortunate they were to have a real orchestra play many of the cues in the game. The other interesting thing about that game was that they built a massive (and I mean MASSIVE) library of their own bespoke sampled instruments that they used for many of the other cues. Here’s something where the orchestra does a double feature- first as the live performers, and second as the sampled virtual orchestra!
One last point to take into account in all of this is that beginning and low-budget composers CAN’T hire an orchestra, but they can afford basic orchestral virtual instruments. If you see a flood of inexperienced composers buying virtual instruments, there’s no reason to be alarmed- they won’t be buying out your LSO sessions any time soon. The rush to more powerful virtual instruments isn’t about REPLACING the orchestra, but about making it accessible to larger masses. Think about what the ideas of the printing press and movable type did for literature and the spread of information- all those monks must have been pissed off they were getting outdone, but wait a second; what is calligraphy? Typography? As one method of working with a subject becomes too costly or extensive to continue, it evolves into new forms to continue on. That is what I believe orchestras and composers around the world are going through right now- evolution to something even greater. We are going through a metamorphosis right now; I just hope I will still be around in time to see music emerge as a butterfly.