Virtual Instrument Techniques for Pro’ Results

virtual instrument tips

If you search through many royalty free music libraries it won’t take long before you come across cheap midi sounds from the past 20 years of computer recording. With the sophisticated virtual instruments available today this need not be the case and with enough care, these instruments can sound impressive, musical and even move you.

Here’s my tips to getting the most from virtual instruments:

Always Think of How The Real Instrument would Play :
You should learn as much as you can about the real instruments that you are emulating. Think of how the musician might physically play a certain phrase as well as the range of the instrument and which register sounds weak or particularly strong? What type of articulations suit the instrument and perhaps where it may be positioned on stage. You should include the inaccuracies that might occur with real instruments. It’s easy to make computer music sound too precise and in real life, this isn’t always the case. The individual instruments of a string section won’t start or end a phrase at exactly the same time-it shouldn’t sound messy, but it should include a human element.

Realistic Strings:
In order to create an effective string section, it’s essential to record each string line separately (violins 1 and 2 (at least) and Viola, Cello, Double Bass) making sure that each line works melodically in it’s own way. Export the files individually to audio and carefully blend each string line together and send these tracks to a separate mix bus.

Now try recording the whole thing again using a string quintet, using solo string samples as opposed to samples from a string section. Export the quintet files to audio and send the quintet to another mix bus. You can now blend the more individual, closer sound of the quintet, in with the full string section. The string section can now be processed in the same way as if the real instruments had been recorded. This kind of attention to detail simply wasn’t possible using midi sounds and while this will never replace the beauty of a real string section, it can produce truly impressive, moving music.

Authentic Piano:
If you have a solo piano or a piano that’s prominent in the mix then try exporting multiple audio tracks and blending them in a similar way that a real piano would be recorded using alternate microphone positions. Export a stereo version with room ambience and another with no room sound at all and in addition export 2 mono files (left and right, with or without room sound). You can now mix them subtly together and pan the mono tracks wider than you hear in the stereo export. Again, send all these tracks to a single mix bus so that you can control them easily and with the subtle use of compression and reverb, you have a truly authentic sounding piano.

Bigger Kit Sounds:
A very effective production effect for the kit is the “New York compression” trick. This involves sending the kit (and possibly bass) to an FX channel and compressing the sound by 10db or more. Add some high end (6-10db around 10khz) and low end (6-10db around 100hz) to the compressed signal (not the kit channel) and now bring the fader of the compressor up so that you can just hear it alongside the original kit mix. This has the effect of padding out the drums subtly and making them sound a little bigger than they were.

It’s well worth investing in a good quality reverb. The cheaper one’s do tend to sound inferior. Once you’ve spent your money, don’t overuse use it! An immediate sign of an inexperienced producer is the overuse of reverb. Remember what would happen in reality when adding artificial reverb. Close sounds would have little, or no reverb, while instruments that are further away would have more. Remember that you can EQ the reverb to alter the tone.

Compression and EQ:
An essential piece of hardware that has made life easier is the Focusrite “Liquid Mix”. Packed into the size of a hardback book it has 20 classic EQs and 40 compressors. With onboard processing, giving your computer a much-needed break you can call up desk emulations from famous studios from both sides of the Atlantic. As well as sounding great and cutting the time down for mixing. The essential ingredient for modern music is compression but be careful not to overuse it.

If you’re after that modern “in your face” sound then a multiband compressor is essential.
This acts on the stereo master signal and compresses different frequencies as if they had they’re own compressors acting upon them. The effect is to bring the apparent volume of the entire track up and make it sound much more alive and colourful. In my mind this is the single most obvious difference between a professional mix and an amateur production.

You can see from these recording tips that there’s just no excuse for tired, old royalty free music sounds. It all depends on the effort that goes into it.

Posted in: Audio, Music, Royalty free music, Tutorials

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