The library you use is extremely important in making a more realistic sound. Notice I said realistic, not good. It's still entirely possible to write great music with cheap and non-existent sound libraries. (Hello Nobuo Uematsu in the 90s!) Here are the most popular string libraries at the time of writing this article.
String Libraries (most common in my experience as of October 2016)
- Berlin Strings
- Cinematic Studio Strings (Cinematic Strings 2 is my personal go to at the moment)
- East West Hollywood Strings
Idiomatic Parts and Phrasing
- The basic idea is if it sounds like something a string player would ACTUALLY play then it will help in the realism of the part
- Part-writing for sections and using common orchestral voicing (this means using a patch for each section of strings. Violins I, II, Violas, Cellos, and Double basses. Usually using a full string patch doesn't sound as convincing)
- Often playing in the part on a MIDI keyboard helps give it an extra dose of realism. This is because the phrasing of a human being is hard to replicate. However, if you are not a keyboard player there are multiple ways of adding phrasing without playing parts in. Namely, editing velocities, humanizing rhythms slightly, and having a detailed idea of what it sounds like in your head and trying as hard as possible to make the strings sound like they do in your head. Keep in mind that doing things this way usually takes much more time. So I would attempt to learn piano simultaneously as I edit so eventually I can just play everything in.
MIDI CC Automation, Velocity, and Keyswitches
- Make sure you are using Modulation (CC1), Expression (CC11), and whatever the library demands. Usually there is a controller that controls velocity layers. (i.e. with mod wheel all the way up the string player is playing at fortissimo, and all the way down would be niente or pianissimo. The differences are usually subtle, but very important. Especially on long held notes and dynamic shifts. These are library dependent and using specifics here is unimportant. Learn your libraries punks!
- Velocities usually control the attack of the sample. Depending on the library they might control staccato attacks or legato patches, or they might control nothing. This is on a library-by-library basis. Make sure you understand how your library works.
- Keyswitches are built in notes on the instrument patch that when played trigger a different articulation. For instance, C0 on the piano roll might be legato samples, then if you hit F0 it turns it into a staccato patch. There are two types of keyswitches. Latching (hit it once and everything afterwards plays that sample) and non-latching (keyswitch must be held for that current articulation to continue being played).
- Often times string libraries come pre-recorded with a nice hall reverb. But often this can lead to trouble mixing down the road with other libraries with built in reverbs who don’t match your strings or vice versa. There are two schools of thought I’ve found when dealing with reverb.
- Leaving the natural reverb in the sample, but adding an overall tail end reverb to all of the samples to put them in the same hall. This is my preferred way of mixing orchestral parts. I feel like leaving the original reverb in the sample helps to keep the original sample as organic sounding as possible.
- Taking away as much of the reverb as possible in the specific instruments and adding your own reverb in the mixing stage. So you’d cut out as much reverb as possible from the get-go, then add a reverb on to put them all in the same hall.
- I think both approaches work and I’ve heard both make for convincing halls. Experiment and see which one you prefer.
- One last note. I use about 4 reverbs. Since I’m using SPACES by East West, I’ll pick a hall (my favorite is the So Cal Orchestral Hall) then make 4 busses for each section of the orchestra. So 1. String Verb, 2. Perc. Verb, 3. Brass Verb, 4. Woodwind Verb then send those instruments from their respective sections to these busses. This helps place the sections in a normal space. (So the orchestral verb has more wetness and more pre-delay, placing it further in the back like a real percussion section would be situated).
- I use specific reverbs for solo instrument parts as well. Piano and/or any solo parts usually have their own unique verbs.
- This is basically slowing down and accelerating the tempo as a real orchestra would. So maybe slowing down on chord changes in really dramatic moments, slightly speeding up in climatic moments, etc.