A lot of composers producing orchestral music would like to have a realistic sound and achieve great results with their mockups. They want to sound as close as possible to a real orchestra. By achieving more realism in your mockups, you instantly get a better and more convincing sound.
Here are 5 of my tips to improve your orchestral mockups.
Tip #1. Listen to a lot of real recordings
While a lot of people want to create highly realistic orchestral mockups, many of them are not used to listening to real orchestra recordings. These days, epic music is mainly produced with virtual orchestras and people get used to the sound of them. If you search for epic music on YouTube, you’d likely find tracks created digitally with samples, like most trailer music.
Because of that, how could one produce something realistic if the reference to realism is a virtual sound? It would be a backwards way to approach it.
Here’s a better way:
Composers have to train their ears and get more familiarized with the actual orchestral sounds. The more they get accustomed to the sound of a real orchestra, the more they will understand how to compare elements with their own music. This will allow them to polish the sound of their virtual orchestra more accurately – giving much better, and more realistic results. Like mixing, it takes time to train the ears, but it’s an essential element in improving your productions.
A great exercise is to imagine you are a conductor and trying to conduct the orchestral piece you are listening to. Listen to the same track again and again, trying to focus your mind on each note, each subtle element, the dynamics of each instrument, and the dynamics of each section. Then you can ask yourself why the instruments are playing like ‘this’ or ‘that’ at that particular moment.
Tip #2. Polish your orchestration
Achieving good orchestration is one of the best ways to obtain a realistic sound. If you listen to the tracks of famous composers played in a notation software with bland, basic sounds, you will notice that it still sounds pretty great – even if the sound bank isn’t that high quality. This is because they have perfected their orchestration to the tiniest of detail. And on the contrary, if you would hear a good composition but with bad orchestration, it would sound totally fake.
The same idea applies when working in a DAW; with the same amount of programming, a track with realistic orchestration will always sound better and more realistic than a track with bad orchestration.
It doesn’t mean you have to write exactly as you would for a real orchestra but it does mean that you have to portray the feeling that it would be playable by a real orchestra – even if it is not. Make it sound like something an actual orchestra would play, in terms of orchestration. And this relates a lot to the previous tip.
I would say the same thing about epic orchestral music, where you combine the sounds of a lot more instrument to sound really over the top epic. Even in this genre, you should also adapt your orchestration knowledge as you would a standard orchestra, so all the sections become powerful, full and well balanced (especially the brass).
Tip #3. Use more articulations and less legato patches
Most composers these days are just using some basic articulations, such as staccato, sustains, legato and pizzicato strings articulation. And this is simply not enough if you want to emulate a real orchestra.
Don’t be afraid to load several kinds of articulations or more (marcato, detache, runs, ricochets, portato, etc) just on a short phrase if the end result is a more realistic sound. Each one of these articulations has been sampled for a purpose: to create a more realistic feeling. Take advantage of that, and use them in your mockups!
Another thing to keep in mind is to use less legato patches. Just use them when you really need them. Too many composers use legato patches everywhere and it doesn’t sound realistic – especially on the brass and woodwinds sections.
Listen to the Main Title of Star Wars, Captain America March by Alan Silvestri, or the Main Title of Back to the Future and you will notice the brass are played marcato and staccato most of the time. The legato lines are very rare compared to those articulations. So be careful with the legato patches and try to replace them with other articulations wherever you think it’s possible.
Tip #4. Bring some life to it with dynamics
When you are programming the MIDI of your virtual orchestra, you have to bring some life into the way the instruments play your phrases. A real orchestra never has static dynamics. Even if the orchestra has to play a long sustain without a dynamic change, the performance of the different instrumentalists will vary, creating a sound which has an essence of life in it – there are actual humans playing it, after all!
That’s why it’s important to always have a lot of dynamics in your mockups and make sure to use the modwheel (or the expression controller depending on the library) to create these dynamic swells and releases in your longer notes and phrases.
Something you can try is to start your phrases with a crescendo, and finishing them with a decrescendo. This way you can convey the idea of a beginning and ending of each phrase, and at the same time create dynamics. It’s a technique that works great for most of my own phrases!
Tip #5. Let the virtual musicians breathe
This is actually very basic, and somewhat obvious, advice. But in fact, a lot of composers regularly fall into this trap! Don’t forget to let the wind instrumentalists (woodwinds and brass) breathe! It’s not a problem to write a long legato line with a wind instrument throughout a track as long as you are adding small pauses here and there, creating several phrases. This makes it seem as if you actually have musicians playing your virtual instruments, and makes a hell of a difference.
While giving small rests to the wind instruments gravitates towards more realism, it also adds a sense of dynamics to your phrases. Having more pauses, more variation and interplay, will make your mockups a lot more living. So don’t forget to make your musicians breathe!