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Topic: Tip Of The Week: Playing virtual instruments characteristically

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  1. #1

    Tip Of The Week: Playing virtual instruments characteristically

    (NOTE: Two MP3 links at the bottom of the post - A live clarinet track, and a MIDI emulation of it.)

    A bit of MIDI theory that made a big impression on me back in the '80s when I first started using MIDI, was that the MIDI musician should try to emulate the characteristic playing styles musicians use with their various analog instruments.

    The means by which to accomplish that kind of emulative playing was more limited back then, but now with the preponderance of sampled instruments being used, and with digital recording more sophisticated than ever, we can more successfully play our virtual instruments "characteristically."

    Having a good sample set of a given instrument is only the starting point. If all we do is trigger notes and expect the results to be stellar, we're only doing a fraction of what's possible to make the samples come to life. The most superbly and detailed sample set in the world won't save the listener from a mediocre performance if the MIDI musician doesn't invest some time in massaging those samples and prodding MIDI tracks to come to life.

    An important caveat to what I'm talking about is that MIDI driven digital performances will Always be abstractions of what can be played on real world instruments. There's always a simplification, and exaggeration even, of what "real" instruments are capable of. To me, there's a nice trade off: The MIDI abstraction has a unique flavor which is appealing in its own way.

    That being said, most people working with MIDI are very concerned about being as "realistic" as possible. My caveat above is to remind everyone that there's a limit to what can be done, and we shouldn't obsess with detail work to the point of thinking we can completely trick the listener into thinking they're hearing live music--we should enjoy and appreciate the way our digital creations are things unto themselves, transcending mere "renderings" (a term that makes me shudder) or "mock ups" (an even more shudder inducing term). I think the best MIDI productions are analogous to a Cubist painting's depiction of natural objects, while compositions played by musicians with traditional instruments are the meticulously "realistic" paintings of the late Renaissance.

    Yet, to base our virtual instrument performances on how the real things are played needs to be our starting point as we develop our unique MIDI interpretations of live sound.

    Once in awhile we need to refresh our senses with examples of real instruments being played. And when we're working on our projects, it's always helpful to stop and focus especially on examples of the instruments we're using in spotlighted roles.

    Using the great GPO Clarinet, here's an example of studying a live Clarinet performance, and playing that virtual instrument "characteristically." By spending a few hours focused only on the Clarinet, and using my imagination as a guide to using my software tools, I felt ready to work with a Clarinet spotlighted on a new piece of music.

    --The Main Ingredient in attempting to make a MIDI performance as natural as possible, is the plentiful use of MIDI volume control. With Garritan instruments, we can use either CC1 or CC11 to create the volume part of a MIDI track's performance. CC1 and 11 are interpreted in exactly the same way in ARIA, so use the control that's most convenient with your particular set up. CC7 is Not intended as the control for an instrument's dynamic volume changes. CC7 controls the sliders in ARIA, and the MIDI sliders in our software. With CC7 we can set the Potential volume for instruments, and then should usually leave it alone for the rest of the project. It's CC1 or 11 that we Must use, and in a continuous fashion, on all of our MIDI tracks.

    Here are the steps I went through for creating my emulation of a live Clarinet.

    --In Sonar, I imported the 49 second demo MP3 of "Santiago Legend" by contemporary composer Howard J. Buss.

    --I loaded GPO's Bb Clarinet into ARIA, and chose the Small Chamber Convolution Reverb.
    --In ARIA's Control window, I turned the Clarinet's Auto legato on for monophonic playback. In the original GPO, instruments were programmed to be monophonic, and that was very helpful to automatically have the instruments playing the way they really do. But in the current GPO, the instruments are polyphonic by default, and the only way to start making soloists sound natural is to turn Auto Legato on so monophonic playing is available. The other option is to edit the polyphony settings in the SFZ files.

    --Also in ARIA's Control window, I turned on the Clarinet's EQ and made some adjustments that I felt made the instrument a little more warm and less brittle. I used the tone of the instrument in the MP3 as a guide.



    --In a MIDI track parallel with the MP3, I started playing the piece by ear. I worked in extremely small bits of only a couple notes at a time. I listened to a segment, recorded a few notes, then moved on, listening, recording, and not being concerned when my timing wasn't matching the original. I was just putting together a raw track with notes matching the recording's.

    --Next, I hand edited note entrances in the Piano Roll View. Snap-to-grid was turned off so I could move notes to exactly where I wanted them. Playback was start and stop as I worked my way through, getting my MIDI notes to more precisely match the note entrances on the MP3. Having the audio track visible above my PRV gave me a visual guide for this editing, since the onset of notes can clearly be seen in the MP3's waveform.

    --Next, I did a volume recording pass over segments of the track, this time working in much larger sections, emulating the volume fluctuations in the live musician's performance.

    --In the Piano Roll View again, I hand edited both the volume data and velocities. I needed to bring some sections up where I'd gone down too far in volume, and in a few places I wanted to added extra hills of data. Also during this editing session, I adjusted Velocity values as needed, mostly needing to lower the values of the notes that started passages. I needed a greater number of softer attacks than I'd initially recorded, and lower velocity values makes for softer attacks.

    --I recorded another pass, this time with Pitch Bend at the ready. There was one note in particular where the live musician seemed to slide a bit more prominently into a note, so I did a bit of PB into that note, and hand edited the results so the data didn't start before it was meant to.



    --EQ AUTOMATION - Here's an extra bit of finessing which can be worth your while on prominent solo tracks. The timbre of Garritan instruments changes a bit as you perform your volume control, but to add an even wider range of timbre control through EQ adds yet another layer of realism. I turned on the EQ section of the audio track connected to ARIA. EQ doesn't effect MIDI, only audio, so I needed to either turn the EQ on in that audio track, or bounce my MIDI track to audio and turn the EQ on in the bounced track.

    I activated several of the EQ bands and set them to record automation. Just as with any Sonar control set for automation, all you have to do is play the project, and move the armed controls as the project plays and those moves are recorded. When I was done, I had EQ envelopes for the 3 frequencies I automated, and they were all located on ARIA's audio track. I kept comparing the results with the original MP3, and grabbing the nodes on the envelopes, made some adjustments here and there as needed. My primary goal was to emulate the way the real clarinet's tone gets brighter as the volume is increased and when it goes into the higher octave. Conversely, I emphasized the lower frequencies when the Clarinet was in its lower register. That range of dark to bright is true of most all instruments. The results made the track sound much more like the live original. It was more colorful and organic, less static.




    When I was satisfied with my recordings of notes, volume data, EQ automation, and my edits of all that, I exported a 32 bit master
    file.

    In Sound Forge, I opened up my recording and also the original MP3. Looking at the waveforms side by side, I could see a few places where I could better match some of the volumes, so by following that visual guide, I made the necessary adjustments.

    If this was my own composition, I would be satisfied that I'd done a good job of playing the Clarinet in a characteristic way. With all of that fresh in my mind, I was ready to work on my own project's Clarinet track.

    Original live recording of the "Santiago Legend" segment

    My MIDI version of the same segment

    Going through that kind of process is a very well worthwhile few hours to spend now and then to get yourself more up to speed to making the most out of your Garritan instruments.

    Randy

  2. #2

    Re: Tip Of The Week: Playing virtual instruments characteristically

    Quote Originally Posted by rbowser- View Post
    (NOTE: Two MP3 links at the bottom of the post - A live clarinet track, and a MIDI emulation of it.)
    I wanted to see how good a job you did so I listened to one of the two tracks without knowing which one it was. I guessed that it was GPO. I then listened to the other track and it wasn't until I heard the clarinetist take a breath that I realized that I had guessed right on the first track. Guessed, mind you, because that GPO version is excellent! Thanks for another great Tip of the Week!

  3. #3

    Re: Tip Of The Week: Playing virtual instruments characteristically

    Quote Originally Posted by Mabry View Post
    I wanted to see how good a job you did so I listened to one of the two tracks without knowing which one it was. I guessed that it was GPO. I then listened to the other track and it wasn't until I heard the clarinetist take a breath that I realized that I had guessed right on the first track. Guessed, mind you, because that GPO version is excellent! Thanks for another great Tip of the Week!
    Nice, Mabry! - Oh man, you make me wish I would've added a breath or two - those are available in JABB. I considered it, but duty called me away from the little project of making the file, and I decided to say it was "FFN"--- That's "Fine For Now"--a phrase I often use, since everything I do always feels temporary, and only FFN.

    Glad to see the new Tip is getting some use!

    Randy

  4. #4

    Re: Tip Of The Week: Playing virtual instruments characteristically

    As it happens, I was one of the first students to play (or, rather, play with) the first synth purchased by my school district, in the early 1970s. At the time, the quality of electronic instruments was such that there was no chance of the sound being mistaken for a traditional instrument. From my first electronic music class on, we were encouraged to NOT try to make a synth sound like strings, horns, percussion, etc. -- since we had real string, horn, and percussion players. The idea was that synths should be used to create sounds that could not be realized by any other means, rather than being a substitute for a traditional instrument. The thinking at the time was, that the electic guitar did not replace the acoustic guitar. It just added to the choices for guitar like sounds.

    Allegro Data Solutions

  5. #5

    Re: Tip Of The Week: Playing virtual instruments characteristically

    Quote Originally Posted by ejr View Post
    As it happens, I was one of the first students to play (or, rather, play with) the first synth purchased by my school district, in the early 1970s. At the time, the quality of electronic instruments was such that there was no chance of the sound being mistaken for a traditional instrument. From my first electronic music class on, we were encouraged to NOT try to make a synth sound like strings, horns, percussion, etc. -- since we had real string, horn, and percussion players. The idea was that synths should be used to create sounds that could not be realized by any other means, rather than being a substitute for a traditional instrument. The thinking at the time was, that the electic guitar did not replace the acoustic guitar. It just added to the choices for guitar like sounds.
    I love this post, ejr.

    For one thing, what a fantastic memory to have - working with that early synth, and taking classes in electronic music. Not a lot of us have had experiences like that.

    And what you say about the days when synthesizers were purely electronic is along the lines of something I've posted about numerous times over the years, both here and other music Forums:

    --There was an admirable purity to the concept of using synths before the days of electronic sampling. I've always thought it's rather like how it's been convincingly argued that the cinema was a unique artform only in the days before sound was introduced. Pictures that moved - nothing else was like that. It wasn't an imitation of what was done on a stage, since the actors couldn't be heard. Then, when sound was added, film did become more of an imitation, and so it was no longer a unique artform. And so with synths - When the sounds they made were various filterings and morphings of the simple, basic waveforms - sine, square, triangle, then they were the tools with which truly unique music could be created.

    I looked online just now but couldn't find the Wendy Carlos quote I've referred to often. As I recall, she was talking about the beauty of purely synthetic sound. She was saying that what she used to do was start off passages using ADSR envelopes that made a synth patch vaguely emulative of an instrument, to give the ear a suggestion, like, "This is something like a French Horn" - but then as the piece progressed, she would simplify the envelope until it was really nothing at all like a horn. I love that.

    The purity of earlier synth sounds and some of the music made with them, was more than just a gimmick - it made electronic music truly unique. Back in the '70's, or maybe the early '80s, I remember reading a study that showed children responded the most to music done with synths. Something about it made them resonate to it more than recordings using traditional instruments!

    In my post starter on this thread, I mentioned how some early advice I'd read was to play synths in an "emulative way." That was the sort of thing I'd find in early issues of Keyboard, and in books about synthesis I had. There would be instructions for programming a generic synth so you could come up with "flute-like" sounds, "clarinet-like" sounds, along with advice on playing those sounds in a way based on how the real instruments were played - but always with the understanding that no trickery was being attempted. They weren't explaining how to make listeners think they were hearing organic instruments, but ways in which to tie in the use of synth patches to the traditions of musical instruments. I would say that was advice from the commercial world as opposed to the academic world which has always championed the more pure approach to any discipline.

    I remember being shocked when samplers were first being introduced. I thought the concept was really wacky - triggering bits and pieces of actual recordings of instruments? It didn't appeal to me at all. Now That seemed like a gimmick to me.

    But then - things evolved, and now here we are in a musical world predominated by electronically produced music which for the most part is trying very hard to be emulative of "reality." As I indicated in my caveats in my opening post, I do feel many of us are stuck in a trap, getting too hung up on trying to make our recordings sound "real" than trying to just write good music.

    Like a lot of people, I feel trapped between two worlds - one where purely synthetic sound rules, the other where sampled realism

    rules. I think people in the pop music industry have it good in this regard - they can do anything they want with their sound, still layering in purely synthetic sounds, never struggling to make their recordings sound like they're being played live on a stage.

    And a closing thought - as much as I still actually have some philosophical problems with our heavy reliance on samples nowadays, at least when it comes to the general population's expectations and preferences, I know we can't go back. It's like in the movies--audiences have long since grown to expect spectacular CGI effects in their fantasy and adventure films. If producers suddenly went back to simple rear-screen projection and Ray Harryhausen style stop animation - well, you can hear the audiences groaning now "OOOOH THAT'S SO FAKE!" - We can't go back.

    You tripped me out with your post, ejr - obviously! SO thanks for that.

    Randy

  6. #6

    Re: Tip Of The Week: Playing virtual instruments characteristically

    Love the demo here, Randy. The advice that we need to refocus on what the real instruments sound like when you're knee deep in the sample word is great advice.

    I know too many people who would listen to the real recording you have and pick it apart for 'fakeness' if they were told it wasn't a real clarinet. Such is the breed of critics I hear from on a regular basis. Sometimes they are correct, but you have to weed the intelligent comments from the stupid ones.

    It's a great insight into creating a more realistic 'performance' of the instrument - which is key when you have a great sounding clarinet such as the Garritan one you used. And the same goes for all instruments, the MIDI performance is the main part of the resulting quality. The depth of EQ is beyond what I do as well, as I tend not to change EQ mid piece - I guess I don't know enough about such things to see why it would be a benefit.
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  7. #7

    Re: Tip Of The Week: Playing virtual instruments characteristically

    Quote Originally Posted by Plowking View Post
    ...The depth of EQ is beyond what I do as well, as I tend not to change EQ mid piece - I guess I don't know enough about such things to see why it would be a benefit.
    Hiya, Graham - Thanks for the thumbs up on this little tute and demo!

    EQ automation - Why it's a benefit is because the range of timbral variety is extremely broader than if you rely only on MIDI. Tom Hopkins did a fantastic demo of this years ago in the old Kontakt Player versions of Garritan.

    By swooping up the level a high frequency band on high notes, you get much closer to the bright, ringing sound of physical instruments. It's a process worth doing only here and there on solos, not so much in ensemble situations. I don't go through this on a regular basis, but whenever I do, I'm happy with how much more organic and changeable the tone is.

    Randy

  8. #8

    Re: Tip Of The Week: Playing virtual instruments characteristically

    This is Gold Randy!

    The entire workflow from beginning to end spelled out is incredibly valuable. I don't know how many times someone shows how to do something where there is assumed knowledge, and piecing it all together can be really difficult.

    As for the philosophy, to me it isn't necessarily about making it sound "real" or "authentic", it is really about transparency: making the computerisation / artificiality / contrivedness fade into the background so far that it is forgotten, and the music speaks. Exactly like what you were saying about the old special effects.

    I recall reading somewhere (I think it was in relation to Finding Nemo) that the director called for completely realistic computer-generated water surfaces. They showed him the results and he said something like "no, that is too realistic - I want people to know that we used computers to generate it" The results were just too good.

  9. #9

    Re: Tip Of The Week: Playing virtual instruments characteristically

    Quote Originally Posted by AlanPerkins View Post
    This is Gold Randy!

    The entire workflow from beginning to end spelled out is incredibly valuable. I don't know how many times someone shows how to do something where there is assumed knowledge, and piecing it all together can be really difficult.

    As for the philosophy, to me it isn't necessarily about making it sound "real" or "authentic", it is really about transparency: making the computerisation / artificiality / contrivedness fade into the background so far that it is forgotten, and the music speaks. Exactly like what you were saying about the old special effects.

    I recall reading somewhere (I think it was in relation to Finding Nemo) that the director called for completely realistic computer-generated water surfaces. They showed him the results and he said something like "no, that is too realistic - I want people to know that we used computers to generate it" The results were just too good.
    A shout out in reply to Alan in China!

    I appreciate your post very much, Alan. I'm glad to hear that the steps taken to put together the clarinet emulation are clear. That was my aim, but to have the outline's clarity confirmed is very helpful to me. Thanks!

    And what you say about "transparency" being the goal rather than "realism" is, to me, spot on. Love the "Finding Nemo" analogy.

    It reminds me of how I've often noted that synth string patches are used much more often in TV soundtracks than string samples. The smoother, un-real sound is much more appropriate to those pads of mood music than the more natural sounding samples would be. The synth sound is simpler, more able to unobtrusively sustain the mood of a scene, without the more detailed, complex sound of real or sampled strings demanding more attention and competing with the actors.

    Randy

  10. #10

    Re: Tip Of The Week: Playing virtual instruments characteristically

    Early synth use could be very heavy handed. On the other hand, some musicians (or, at least, their producers/arangers) showed remarakable restraint. Then, as now, it always comes down to a question of style and taste. Listen to the Abby Road album again sometime (the first and only one in which the Beatles used a synth). Notably, on "Here Comes the Sun", the synthesized sound integrates seamlessly with the guitars and organ patches, filling in the gaps. It's used much as the sax was when it was first introduced, to do something that existing instruments could not. (Either it serves as a bridge between the brass and the reeds, or it is used with the brass the way that reeds would have if they could be played as loudly as the brass).

    I am now using sampled sounds to help me orchestrate and to serve as a demo for how a live orchestra of traditional instuments would sound playing my composition live (because there are no electronic instuments in this score.) But for future projects I am inclined to use sampled instruments much as I have done in the past: either to serve as the starting point for a transformation into a unique sound, or to compensate for the limitations of traditional instruments. For example, to play a clarinet part in the throat range that would be either too technical or sound too strained if played on a real clarinet. Or to play a snare drum part on a particular pitch.

    Allegro Data Solutions

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