Using virtual instruments in composition and music production

A great deal of composition today is done using a computer to a greater or lesser extent. Some composers swear by Sibelius, some will use a DAW such as logic for music creation. What tools you prefer will depend on the final result you are trying to achieve.

In my compositions, on the whole, I use a combination of Sibelius, Logic and Pro Tools. Sibelius is, in my humble opinion, the benchmark for music publishing and very handy if you want to crest a usable score of your music. The problem arises when you want to hear your music. Eagle eyed readers will be quick to point out that Sibelius does have quite a large, and recently improved, sample library included which does a reasonable job of playing the music entered according to the instruments chosen. However, if we are entirely honest, it’s a poor substitute for the real thing. It should be noted that for the purpose of this article I am considering orchestral music and related virtual instruments. There are of course some synthesised sounds which work very well and indeed have no “real” equivalent.

When considering the place of virtual orchestral instruments, the problem arises mostly because the vast majority of us do not have a symphony orchestra tucked away in the back office just waiting to play through a half finished score to see how it sounds. Consequently, the vast majority of composers, myself included, resort to the use of Sample Libraries to give an indication of how the music will sound. It’s no secret that I use East-West virtual instruments when preparing a score and, on the whole, they are pretty good. It is not my purpose to present a review of comparison of various libraries – there are plenty of others to choose from. I like East West because it integrates well into Logic and gives me a reasonable library of instruments which, overall, are fairly good.

The question is how useful are these virtual instruments and what should they, and indeed shouldn’t they be used for. Over the years I have added orchestration to a number of school and choir CDs using a range of virtual instruments which have all been well received. Sometimes people comment that it sounds just like a real orchestra. Now, I don’t want to run down my own work or cut off a good line of business. I think that its fair to say for some situations the virtual orchestra can sound pretty good. It’s certainly an improvement over a slightly old or out of tune school piano! However, to say that it sounds just like a real orchestra is perhaps pushing the bounds of reality a little.

That said, if you take a listen to some of the Sample music put together by the manufacturers of the various libraries available, they do sound extremely convincing and very realistic. This is where we have to consider the difference between what is theoretically possible and what is practical in the commercial world. Given enough time and mastering expertise it is possible to get some impressive results from sample libraries. But often this could mean editing individual notes to use the start of the note from one sample and the end from another. Multiply this out by the number of notes in even a short piece and you are facing many many hours of production! At the point it would probably be cheaper and quicker to hire a real orchestra.

By way of conclusion, I believe that virtual instruments have two roles to perform. Firstly they are a good way of getting a feel for the music and at the very least confirming a composition before submitting it for performance in the real world. Secondly, they can be used, to an extent in some projects which would otherwise be worse off or compromised. The most important thing is to remember the limitations and set expectations of your audience appropriately.