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Topic: Panning layout for Orchestra

  1. #1

    Panning layout for Orchestra

    Many of us here are concerned with orchestral emulation in our projects. While it's certainly not the only way to use GPO, to simulate the physical layout of a live orchestra is often part of the equation we use. Right "out of the box," GPO comes with default panning positions which reflect the ground plans used throughout the program's manual.

    I've arrived at my own preference for a layout, which varies a bit from how GPO is programmed, but that was an easy process and it's easy to call up my templates with the panning programming included in them. I liked what one of the tutorials on the front page of the Garritan site said about moving the 2nd strings directly opposite from the 1st strings, because of the nice, full stereo spread this gives those two sections which so often play an octave apart from each other.

    But before I was using GPO, I had based by hardware synth version of an orchestra on the seating plan found in the classic text, "The Technique of Orchestration" by Kent Kennan and Donald Grantham, third edition from 1983.

    The book labels its seating diagram like this: "The diagram that follows show the most usual seating plan for the orchestra today."

    Under the diagram is the caveat, "...However, numerous variants of this plan are possible. For example, the positions of the second violins and the cellos are sometimes interchanged; the percussion may be placed to the right of center (at the back) instead of where shown; and the harp is sometimes placed in the dotted area at the left instead of at the extreme right."

    For visual reference, I made a simple version of this diagram in .gif format, located here:


    Not that it matters terribly, but it's at least interesting how different this "most usual seating plan" is from the one settled on by the designers of GPO. Having the Violas in front of the woodwinds (in GPO) is a major difference, and so is having the Harp behind the 1st and 2nd strings instead of at far stage left (right side of the viewer.) The "dotted area" mentioned in the text isn't in my .gif. It's basically where GPO has it, but even farther to the left. Kennan lists this as a less-often used alternative. Interesting.

    I hadn't taken so much notice of these differences until I was suddenly realizing that when it comes to adding reverb in slightly different amounts, depending on a section's location on stage, my template has the woodwinds a bit dryer than the violas, because of my previous plan of having them located closer to the audience, not behind the Viola string section.

    I've also kept my Harp far to the right as in the Kennan book.

    This is offered for possible discussion--Is the GPO layout more typical of current orchestras, as compared to the layout shown in this book from 1983? Does the layout of your virtual orchestra instruments matter all that much to you? Have many of you made changes that you prefer to the default settings in GPO? And so forth.

    This was inspired by a sudden concern that I had my woodwinds in the "wrong" position--But then reminded myself that orchestral layouts really do vary a great deal, often dictated by the particular physical restraints of the venue they play in, so it probably couldn't be accurately said that my particular layout is "wrong."


    Randy B.

  2. #2
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Mar 2004
    Wilton, NH

    Re: Panning layout for Orchestra

    In the last three years I have seen the BSO perform over a dozen times, usually under James Levine. He has the violins sitting opposite each other. When a guest conductor puts the violins next to each other I think they sound "off", particularly when doing 19th or 18th century works. I really think composers purposely wrote music with a stereo effect.

    From what I've read, having the violins sitting next to each other is a 20th century invention that had its roots in recording to mono. well, we no longer record in mono. I think recordings with the violins separated sound so much better - you can actually tell what the 2nd violins are doing!

    As far as GPO is concerned, it is easy enough to make any type of lay out you choose that I’m not too worried about the default.
    Trent P. McDonald

  3. #3

    Re: Panning layout for Orchestra

    Interesting! Thanks for the replies, Ern and Trent. I especially enjoyed the info that the practice of putting the 1st and 2nd strings next to each other has its origins from the needs of mono recording.

    James Levine placing the two sections facing each other--!--That's good enough for me! And big Ha! in the general direction of a rather snobby musician who tried to tell me that my habit of having those sections on opposite sides of the stage was sacreligious.

    No matter what style of music people work with, the aim always is to have it sound as "good" as possible--yes?--So if improving the stereo field of an orchestra either in live or recorded performances is possible, obviously we should feel free to experiment with instrument placement.

    Thanks again.


  4. #4

    Re: Panning layout for Orchestra

    Having stood in front of an orchestra for performance purposes, while not considering it "sacreligious", I don't care for the effect of 2nd violins across the stage from 1st violins. My reason is that they often play as a pair. Having them to the right of the conductor also places the 2nd violins' sound production apparatus away from the audience, giving the 1st violins a very clear leg-up in volume. This is also one main reason for wanting the violas directly in front of the conductor - to give that tiny aural boost (and make sure none of them fall asleep during the concert).

    As for the harp, I prefer the Montreal Symphony's "extreme left, behind the 1st and second violins" placement. Although it would be nice to be able to stick the harp right in the middle between strings and woodwinds, where it would have the most chance to integrate.

  5. #5

    Re: Panning layout for Orchestra

    Quote Originally Posted by qccowboy
    ...I don't care for the effect of 2nd violins across the stage from 1st violins. My reason is that they often play as a pair...
    I think it depends on the composition. If the 1s & 2s are playing unisons, octaves or harmonies, group them together. If they're mostly playing call and response or different rhythms, put them across from one another. The same goes for string quartets.

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