Original music from Australian Composer, Rosie Williams

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Is that an orchestra in your pocket?

A basic introduction to how composers create realistic orchestral music & other instrument sounds.

Composition 10th Aug 2021

I've recently written some orchestral pieces so thought I'd give readers without a background in music technology an introduction to creating this kind of music without an actual orchestra is done.

After all, it was only this time last year that I had no idea myself how any of this works and what could be accomplished with software already on my Macbook.

During my previous incarnations as a musician - decades ago - did not take me into the territory of electronic music or synthetic sound. When I stepped back through the door into the world of music during the 2020 Sydney lockdowns, I found a whole new world had grown up behind me creating a world of possibilities as a composer that did not occur to me in years past.

In fact, the world of virtual instruments developed to such an extent that I often catch myself pulling my earphone out of my ear just to check that my neighbours really can't hear the 'piano in a bathroom' sound I could swear is echoing around me!

Check out Waiting, a piece for piano, clarinet and strings...

Waiting (Orchestra)
A dramatic orchestral piece reflecting the feelings we face in lockdown due to the pandemic.

So where do those realistic sounds come from? Ironically enough, every Mac like mine comes with a program called GarageBand, a 'Digital Audio Workstation' normally refered to as a DAW. I had previously never opened this program and had no real idea what it was for. I thought it was some kind of game.

If you want to find out more about DAWs, here is a brief overview which includes free options and there are plenty of vidoes on YouTube to get you started (though I notice a distinct lack of female voices).

I was in for both a treat and a challenge as I navigated my way through what I found to be a very frustrating trial and error process of learning what these programs make easy and which parts of musical composition are best done with other programs.

I'm going to take readers through a tour of my current approach to composition using Waiting (above) for those just curious or for people starting out like I did a year ago to avoid some of the frustrating moments which saw me threatening to throw my laptop off the nearest bridge!

Rather than go through the whole explanation of what these programs do myself, today I found an excellent video on YouTube and can only wish that I had seen it a year ago because it explains to viewers, regardless of their background just what virtual instruments are and how DAWS are used to create sophistocated music and also what not to use them for ie- musical notation.

The video by Benjamin Botkin explains the role played by midi in today's music. For those interested in the technical side of sound, Stephan Witt's How Music Got Free is such a fascinating history of the huge technical challenge that constituted the development of midi and the virtual instruments they mimic that I'm reading it again now.

I also feel compelled to mention that Bejamin makes using DAWS look a lot easier than it actually is for anyone who doesn't have such an expert grasp of the software - and that of course says nothing for the musical skills required. DAWS do make amazing things possible though!

When I create a piece of music I use both a DAW and a musical notation program, in my case, MuseScore which is free and open source. You'll only need this software if you can read music otherwise it's much easier to use the DAW alone to throw together some 'loops'. If you want to know what just one aspect of creating such complex software entails, check out the video from the creator of the musical font that is to music what the alphabet is to language.

Musical notation programs focus on the creation written scores for musicians to play from. Like a DAW, however, both types of program contain the ability to play the sounds input using different instrument sounds and, to an extent, the different articulations or techniques each instrument family is capable of.

Musical articluation is like a tone of voice, making a note or melody angry or sad or jaunty. It's one of the aspects that distinguish real sounding music from that which is more obviously computer generated.

When I create a piece of music I start out on my keyboard (which stands in for an actual piano but has the virtue of creating and storing soundfiles which can then be manipulated using a DAW. These days with a relatively cheap electronic keyboard you can plug into a DAW and use it to make any of the instrument sounds included with that DAW. this vastly expands the scope of what can be created with electronic music.

Though I do occasionally play snippets of pieces directly into the DAW for recording, I generally notate each track or individual instrument part separately in MuseScore as I go, (ie write the notes in musical notation) then export the resulting files for further tweaking in GarageBand.

While DAWS like GarageBand do come with and the capacity to download a free sound library of instrument sounds and loops (ie guitar licks or short musical phrases or rhythms), these libraries are augmented with independently produced virtual instrument libraries to provide a fuller range of sounds.

This can be important because a trumpet in a Miles Davis type jazz piece is going to sound very different than a trumpet playing music more reminiscent of a royal coronation or orchestra.

I was lucky enough to have someone tip me off that the BBC Symphony Orchestra had worked with a company called Spitfire Audio to create a sound library of orchestral sounds which I was able to obtain free of charge. These are the 'plug-ins' that Benjamin Botkin speaks of in the aforementioned video, being used to enhance the default instrument sounds.

While these sounds have become integral to much of my composition, I find that I can not get all the variations in tone production that I require and this is where I am greatful for MuseScore, a free program which allows me to export not only midi files (which store the notes but not the MuseScore sound) but wav versions which keep the stunning tone of the solo instrument as opposed to hearing a choir of strings, for example.

This is why the same piece of music sounds different when generated from the Musescore score as opposed to after those parts have been exported into the DAW for further editing or enhancing.

You can see the midi versions below in green and the wav files at the bottom in orange (a few bars in). The wav files are the Musescore sounds and the midi versions can be altered by the sound libraries I download and plug into GarageBand.

Once I'm happy with a piece I use iMovie (which also comes bundled with Mac) to knit together free videos from pixabay.com into a narrative to sync with the music. iMovie requires no real skill and exports high quality movies with audio and video. I've also used it to sync audio with the screen recordings used in this blog post.

Finding free videos to use is a pretty hit and miss affair but to me it's a fun reward to end the composing process before uploading the new piece to YouTube and creating PDF versions of the score for either Freescores or SheetMusicPlus.




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