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7 Essential Techniques To Make Your Samples Sound Realistic

7 Essential Techniques To Make


Your Samples Sound Realistic
Articulations, Controllers, Layering and Blending, Reverb and Room Placement,
Legato, Performance Samples and Dynamics: Whether you are starting out or
you’ve been at this for years, if you are frustrated by the sound of your sampled
mock-ups there is a strong probability one of these is not pulling its weight. Of
course, super expensive top-end libraries help, but if you approach it in the right
way there is a lot you can do with limited resources, even the factory samples in
Kontakt or Logic.

Everything we describe here are demonstrated and expanded upon with 10 hours of
clear, entertaining video tutorials in our course Sampled Orchestration in a
Weekend.

Check it out here.

1. Articulations
This is the most important. Articulations are different ways of playing a note;
long, really short, tremolando, all that stuff. If you simply try to play a violin
theme on a sample called “Violin” it will probably sound extremely unconvin-
cing. You need to listen to the line of music and work out what articulations
need to play which note. How short do the short notes need to be? Spiccato,
staccatissimo, tenuto?! They’re all different. How are you playing the long
notes? With vibrato and espressivo or cool and glassy like flautando or harmon-
ics? So when musicians simply use one patch for everything – and we hear that a
lot - it’s not going to get past first base. The good thing is that even with the
most basic sample library like the Logic factory instruments, you can massively
improve the realism just by using this technique.

Changing Articulations

How you switch articulations depends on your personal preference and your tech-
nology.

Keyswitches: This is a technology where your sample program contains several dif-
ferent articulations and you use notes outside the range of the instrument to se-
lect which one should be heard. There are many pros and cons over this approach,
but it is a popular way of keeping your track count down while giving you lots of
choice.

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7 Essential Techniques To Make Your Samples Sound Realistic

sion maps are similar where you draw


the articulation in so it works in a sim-
ilar way. It’s dead easy to use once
you’ve got it working. The downside is
you have to play the line in first using
one articulation then add the articula-
tion changes later. Setting up Articula-
tion IDs and Expression Maps is a bit of
a pain unless you buy a pre-pro-
grammed set of articulations maps
from someone like Babylonwaves.
Separate Tracks: This is the other end
of the spectrum: One track for each https://www.babylonwaves.com/
articulation. The advantages are that
you get to see what’s going on more They sell a comprehensive library of
simply. You can layer and blend Articulation IDs and Expression Maps
samples and balance the volume of dif- and are highly recommended if you are
ferent articulations more easily. The going down this path.
downside is it takes longer to set up
and uses a LOT of tracks. The key to making this work really well
is focusing on the fine detail, the
Articulation IDs (Logic) and Expres- balance of the different articulations
sion Maps (Cubase) against each other, the precise timing
of different articulations and the way
These are two dedicated technologies you transition from one to another so it
built into Logic and Cubase respect- sounds completely natural. Often, for
ively. Articulation IDs allow you to se- example, spiccato samples need to be
lect notes and then choose the articu- nudged a few milliseconds early to
lation from a drop down menu. Expres- sound natural and “in time”.

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7 Essential Techniques To Make Your Samples Sound Realistic

Touch Screens

This is popular in higher end studios where someone has a lot of time and money,
but mainly time. You can assign a keyswitch, key command, or controller to a vir-
tual fader or button on the touch screen so you can change articulation by the
press of a touch screen button. It’s a very elegant solution but it takes weeks or
months to programme so you have to weigh up whether it is worthwhile.

2. Controllers
Continuous Controllers are controls like a fader, a mod wheel or a sustain pedal
that control various aspects of the sampled instrument while it is playing. For
example, push the mod wheel forward and the brass sample gets louder. These
controllers are known as CC and come with numbers from 1 – 127. The most
common and useful are:

CC 1 Mod wheel
CC 2 Breath controller
CC 7 Main volume
CC 11 Expression (a percentage of main volume)
CC 64 Sustain pedal

The Spitfire Audio system “UACC” is good for this. You


can find full details here but in essence they use one
controller, CC32 and assign a default articulation to
each and every value for that CC. Every CC has a range
of values from 1-127 so that means you can in theory
have 127 different articulations. You then assign a spe-
cific value to a particular virtual button. For example
you programme a button to send CC32, value 70 and
that should select a minor second trill. Some sample
manufacturers consistently use other CCs to control
particular aspects of the sound. For example Spitfire
use CC 22, 23, 24 to control the Close, Room and Am-
bient mic positions. 21 is often vibrato.

Using these controllers can really take your mock-ups


to another level. It gives you a degree of control over
the detail of the virtual performance you can’t achieve
any other way. Using the mod wheel to increase
volume for example often not only increases the
volume but changes the timbre of the note as well. So
the vibrato intensity in the string line increases and the
tone of the French horn becomes more brassy.

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7 Essential Techniques To Make Your Samples Sound Realistic

There are again several ways of input-


ting CC data. Many people use midi To get the most out of this, you will
faders and play the keyboard with the need to dive into the sample library
right hand and control the faders or manual so you fully understand how
the mod wheel in real-time with their different CCs have been implemented.
left.
Assigning a CC yourself
Or you can draw in control changes in
the DAW with the pen tool. In most instruments, right or control
clicking on a virtual knob or fader will
bring up a MIDI learn dialogue. The
next controller you touch will then be
assigned to that knob. So even where
there is no default assignment, you can
customize your instrument and save it
off so it responds to your own chosen
MIDI controllers.

There… it sounds so simple when I


write that but there is a deep well of
complexity behind that statement.
Learning how to balance different con-
trollers and how best to use them to
enhance realism will take time. The
best way to learn is to watch video tu-
torials like the ones in Sampled Or-
chestration in a Weekend and then ex-
periment yourself.

3. Layering & Blending


Combining two or more samples at the same time can be extremely powerful.
You might take a marcato sample to give the start of an espressivo sample a bit
more bite. You could take a crescendo and layer it over the end of a long sus-
tained note. There are any number of ways of inventing custom articulations
like this so you can take a limited range of articulations and mix and match to
produce many more. When people programme fast string runs for example, one
nice effect is to layer a short sample like a spiccato with a tremolando sample.

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7 Essential Techniques To Make Your Samples Sound Realistic

Some instruments layer better than others. Strings layer great so you can put two
libraries together or lay a solo string line over an ensemble.

Brass doesn’t layer well and the more brass instruments you throw in there, the
less convincing and muddier it sounds.

Experiment and trial and error are your guides here. Use your ingenuity to find
new ways of recombining old favourites into fresh new sounds. Convolution or
sampled reverb uses a lot of CPU so it is usually placed on an auxiliary bus so one
instance can serve many instruments.

4. Reverb & Room Placement


This is a long and complex subject. There are both technical and creative as-
pects to this. Many composers use two layers of reverb. A shorter, often
sampled or convolution reverb to place the instrument in the room, then a
longer, often algorithmic or synthesised reverb as a finishing reverb.

Convolution: Altiverb, East West Spaces,

Algorithmic: Lexicon Native, Vallhalla

Reverb is one of the main tools for pla- East West Symphonic Orchestra – very
cing all your sampled instruments in ambient, recorded in a large concert
the same virtual room, even though the hall in Seattle.
different libraries were recorded in
very different acoustic environments. East West Hollywood series – quite
dry, recorded at East West studios in
So, start with the sound of the room Holly- wood which used to be the old
where the sample was recorded. Cello studios.

Spitfire - very ambient, recorded in Cinesamples – medium ambience, the


the hall at Air Lyndhurst in London. Sony studio in LA.

VSL (old samples) – very dry, recorded


at their own Silent Stage near Vienna.

Now to combine them together you


use, for example, a large sound stage
setting in EW Spaces to place the drier
instruments in the same room as the
rest. You may well need to use differ-

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7 Essential Techniques To Make Your Samples Sound Realistic

ent mic positions with the more am- Another approach is to use something
bient samples. Try using mainly close like virtual sound stage from Paralax or
mics on the Spitfire for example to get VSL’s MIR to place instruments in
a drier sound. precise positions in the room. A lot of
people like this approach. Drawbacks
include the amount of CPU these plu-
gins use. I think you can get as good an
effect using normal reverb and panning
the reverb sends appropriately.

5. Legato
This has long been a major challenge for sample producers: How to replicate
the sound of an instrument like a violin as it slides gracefully from one note to
another. They have over the years developed increasingly sophisticated sample
programs which now can accurately reproduce this kind of performance.

The way it works is that they sample the sound of the transition. It might be a
fraction of a second but it makes all the difference. When you play a legato pro-
gramme you overlap the outgoing and incoming notes as you play, and this triggers
the legato sample.

Some legato samples work better than others. The most sophisticated have speed
controls that respond to the way you are playing so it triggers a different sample if
you play very fast runs compared to a portamento sample when you play very
slowly.

With legato, the golden rule is don’t over-do it. Not every solo line has to be
legato, particularly for woodwind and brass. Use legato only where a player would
naturally play the line in a single bow or breath without tonguing. That often
means combining legato programmes with others to create the most natural and
effective sampled performance.

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7 Essential Techniques To Make Your Samples Sound Realistic

6. Performance Samples
What do I mean by this? Well think of a harp glissando or a timpani crescendo.
You could create a harp glissando but running your hand over the keyboard but
it might sound a lot better if you use a sample of an actual player playing a glis-
sando. Likewise with crescendi, dynamic changes, runs and lots of other special
ar- ticulations which are extremely difficult to render synthetically in samples.

The downside is that all these performance samples are recorded at specific tempi
which probably doesn’t match the tempo of your piece. Fortunately sample players
like Kontakt (NI) and Play (EW) are very good at synching to the tempo of the
piece.

I find bouncing the performance sample as a piece of audio so you can see where it
starts and finishes is very effective. You can line it up more accurately and even
trim the start or finish.

7. Dynamics
Mixing and balancing your sampled mock-up is a huge topic and it is the one of
the most challenging aspects of sampled orchestration. Most samples do not
have the same dynamic range as the instruments they represent. So you need to
work out a way of giving them a greater dynamic range and that normally means
actively mixing the samples. You can do that using controllers like CC1, 7 and 11
(as above) or by routing all the strings through a single group on the mixer so
you can effectively “conduct” the section and bring them all up or down in
volume at the same time.

Keep in mind that if you can’t hear the clarinet, you are probably better off turn-
ing everything else down rather than turning the clarinet up. If you always turn up
the instruments you can’t hear then you get into a vicious circle of volume infla-
tion until eventually everything is hitting the red line in the meter.

Getting this right makes the samples sound more realistic as well. Remember when
you turn up the volume on a sample, you are often using a sample of someone
playing really loud so the timbre of the instrument is at the top of the range. The
sound you may be looking for is that warm mf or mp and you won’t get that if
you’ve lost control of the balance of the template.

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7 Essential Techniques To Make Your Samples Sound Realistic

Conclusion
So these are the 7 techniques every composer needs to conquer in order to bring
greater realism to their sampled orchestration. There are many more, and beneath
the surface of each of these headings is weeks or months of experimentation to
find out how to use it to best effect.

That’s why we created our Sampled Orchestration in a Weekend course with 10 hours
of video tutorials illustrating each of these techniques and many more. There are
tutorials filmed in both Logic and Cubase but the lessons are transferable to almost
any DAW.

The other course which you should check out is Template in a Weekend which shows
you the technical side of putting an orchestral template together. There’s a lot to
know and this course takes you painlessly through what can become a technical
minefield.

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