After a long break from making music due to my thesis, here I am again! This time I’ve decided to share my workflow on a recent project. You can listen to the final result below:
The song is part of the Vision of Escalowne‘s original soundtrack (third CD album). I’ve seen this anime more than a decade ago, made cassette copies of my sister’s CD, and listened to it regularly back in highschool. For a cartoon, it has a soundtrack that goes beyond what you would normally expect. It’s one of the reasons I got hooked into orchestra music (as opposed to the serious and profound classics that is less accessible to my less mature mind back then). It’s composed by Yoko Kanno and Hajime Mizoguchi and (probably) performed by Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. The score was based on this transcription by ThePochaccos and all thanks to him/her for doing a great job.
Unfortunately it is not a public domain score, so I won’t be able to share it that easily. But basically, I transcribed the video using MuseScore. It is not that difficult, there are parts in the piano that need “voices”, but the whole piece is mostly strings (for me., that’s actually easier and more fun than emailing the youtube user). (I hope to share something public domain next time).
I’ve been itching to get Reaper for a long time already, but so far, my projects are not too complex, so this setup is still fine.
Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra
For this song, I decided to do a proper demo of SSO. I’ve always used multiple orchestra samples and layer the different results in Audacity. Using SSO by itself has also revealed some of its shortcomings. Sometimes the release does not sound well, giving an unnatural sound at the end of the note (i.e. in long contrabass notes or in violas). I work around this by shortening the note until the odd sounding part is no longer audible. The slow attacks also made it less favorable for fast short notes, making them sound mushy, and making the melody less defined. I try to remedy this by increasing the note velocities or decreasing the note velocities of the background instruments. I wonder whether using a VST SFZ player, instead of Syntfont’s native sfz support, might give better results, but I have not really explored this option.
Update: As it turns out, this manual looping workaround was unnecessary ans I should apologize for the misinformation. My mistake was to directly load the sfz file to Synthfont (an older version back then) instead of using an sfz playing VST. SSO strings loop nicely with Plogue sforzando. The text is maintained for historical purposes and as it may still be helpful for other libraries that do not have looping in them or, for another application, to hide the distinct repetitive sound of looped samples.
Another shortcoming of SSO is its lack of looped samples for some instruments, which has forced me come up with a tricky work around. The first note of the first violins is 9 bars long (31 seconds at 70 BPM!). At first I thought of editing the SFZ samples, but that seemed overkill for a single note. So next, I imgained how a real orchestra would actually play a half minute note. If it were a single violin, the maximum amount of time you could slide the bow over a string would be limited by the bow’s length and the minimum bow velocity needed to produce an acceptable sound, maybe five or 10 seconds (my imagination’s approximation). Restarting the bow slide would have made a new note. But an ensemble of more than 10 violins doesn’t have to simultaneously restart their individual bowing. So while one violinist restarts there are about 10 others who are still bowing midway, hiding the restarting guy and creating an illusion of continuity. That’s my guess.
Back to the MIDI editor, I implemented “manual looping” by making an extra first violins track (not to be confused with the second violins in the score). I broke the whole 9 bar note into shorter segments that can be played by SSO. The extra violin track continues the note when it’s about to end in the original violin track. Then the original violin track continues the note when the extra violin track’s note is about to end. Hence, by alternating and overlapping these two violin tracks for the same note, I get a manually looped violin note. To mask the attacks of this repeating violin, I align them with the attacks (note start) of the other instruments in the score. Of course, these alternating violin tracks must have the same volume and panning and go through to the same effects chain.
It may also be worth noting that the SSO updated sustain violins worked better for this trick.
Guitar = Guitar Pro
Since I can’t compete with a real orchestra, I generally avoid making inferior copies of something that it is already great (except for personal studies or demos). Who would listen to that? At the very least, I would change an instrument to give a different feel that is worth listening to. Hence, I changed the piano part into guitar. Being a more common and accessible instrument, and being a long time guitar player myself, I could relate more with the sad sound of a guitar.
I’m also known among my friends for advocating Guitar Pro (GP) as a virtual guitar addition to their DAWs. Even though I play guitar well (used to?), and own many guitars (too many to remember), recording guitars with my limited laptop studio setup has never given me satisfying results. GP actually started as a tablature study program (coincidentally at the age when I was crazy about studying guitar tabs). When it started out, there was a free alternative that can do as much, Tux Guitar. But since Guitar Pro’s introduction of RSE (realistic sound engine), it has, in my opinion, left Tux Guitar far behind. GP would not integrate with a DAW like a VST or soundfont, but it’s notation based interface, optimized for guitar articulations, makes it far more intuitive than any VST I know. GP can simulate vibrato, hammer on/pull offs, ringing, chord “brushing”, harmonics and many more with a few mouse clicks and without having to tweak MIDI parameters. And the demos sound realistic enough for me (listen or download here). It’s probably the guitar equivalent of Finale + Garritan combo, but at a price below a hundred dollars. Software that unify sophisticated music notation and virtual sound production is really something we should be thankful for (although I would also hope for piano roll integration).
There’s nothing really new here, but I would be happy if a newcomer in digital music production/midi orchestration would learn something from this. Note that the only tool that costs money is Guitar Pro, although I’ve also donated a small amount to Synthfont as it is very useful to me and it was the first thing to exactly match what I was looking for before, a simple tool that applies soundfonts and VSTi’s to an existing MIDI file that is not as overkill as a full blown DAW. With diligence, passion and knowledge of what great tools are available out there, making quality music, one that you can mix in to your iPod or MP3 player, is no longer a thing that can only be done with professional thousand dollar studios.
Happy music making!
When I told my land lady before that I wanted a piano in my room, she advised me to buy one in December as prices would go down.
The same rule applies for virtual instruments and other music making software. If you can wait, wait until December. I had seen many discounts, and hence, was able to purchase Miroslav Philharmonik Orchestra and Kontakt 5 at 1/3 and 1/2 their regular prices respectively. In fact, there are too many such promos, that I decided to only discuss the products I actually bought and just give a more comprehensive link in KVR Audio for the rest. Elsewhere in the interwebs, audible (UK) has given a 30% off on all audiobooks (I’m a lazy reader) and Actual Tools sold their multiple monitor taskbar with a 50% discount. For sure there are more discounts for other products during the December holidays.
Christmas has some good effects. I would like to believe that deep in their hearts, vendors just simply want to give, when they are possessed by Christmas spirits. But of course, marketing wise, Christmas promos get them more publicity, attract customers who would otherwise never buy their products, and for those selling tangible stuff, get rid of the year’s unsold products. In any case, if you are not tricked into impulsive buying, it is a win-win situation IMHO.
So, if you think a product is great, but have no immediate use for it, it may be good idea to be patient and wait. Also, if it software delivered via download, you don’t have to worry that it will run out of stock. If the software is famous/reputable, its website would most probably still be around within the year.
You might even realize that you can actually live without it as time goes by and you discover alternatives. :)
Risks and considerations
What you could worry about is that the price may go up as you wait. There is the possibility of inflation, and prices may rise with continuing software development expenses. But so far, I’ve seen price increases are moderate when they do happen. Another consideration is major software upgrades. There are a lot of complaints when software undergo extreme make-overs like when MS Office 2007 was introduced. As the most affected are those who are used with the previous version, this may not be a problem for new customers. I haven’t used any previous versions of Guitar Pro before, so unlike what others may claim, I find Guitar Pro 6 to be just fine. Whether or not an upgraded version will be discounted or for free if you have a previous version is another concern. It could be sad to pay extra a few months after buying a previous version.
What a great way to start a year by waiting for it to end. I actually don’t feel very comfortable talking about all that buying stuff and whatnot as I prefer talking about free stuff which all of us can appreciate. But as consumers or prosumers, buying things is just part of getting things done.
Happy New Year! :)
Before noticing it, you may end up with hundreds of soundfont files, especially if you have a broadband internet connection and a very picky ear. Indirectly, the quality of your project can depend on how you organize your samples, as you may miss a good sample you actually have if the files are scattered (speaking from experience).
Organize by instrument. Look at how the 128 GM instruments are listed to get an idea. Make a folder for each instrument group. Libraries that contain a set of files may have their own folders (e.g. DSK, Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra). GM/GS files (single file with all the 128 instruments packed together) should also go together in their designated folder. The sparse independent random samples are best organized by instrument group. Some files are not very intuitively named (e.g. named after the model number of the instrument, specially for drum kits and electric guitars).
It may not be a good idea to rename them as you might end up downloading them again (this really happens if the filename does not give you a clue of what instrument it is, tending to be unused and forgotten), and you may find forums and reviews talking about a specifically named soundfont.
Of course, the same applies for VSTi’s and VSTs when possible (some VSTs come in a setup program, while most others are just the bare DLLs).
One downside I realized is that some DAW software do not offer you the option to browse for soundfonts or VSTs, but instead scan a predefined directory (this directory may probably be changed in the Windows Registry). Audacity is an example. I think this is bad design. Some samples can be gigabytes in size and I would not like having them in my system partition (drive C:).
Where to look for soundfonts? Hammersound seems to be quite known and is nicely organized (websites are another source of organizing ideas). For files that can not be found in Hammersound, or if the link is broken, sf2midi might be the next best place, despite its many ads and the free registration required.