The Virtual Orchestra Part 1 of 9: Articulations 101

November 26, 2012

Fig. 1. A composer’s DAW template might have dozens of sequencer tracks, each with one patch devoted to one rticulation per instrument.
SOUNDING LIKE REAL ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENTS IS A TASK MANY KEYBOARD PLAYERS and composers are called on to execute, and it takes more than just playing the right notes and dynamics using a good sample. Understanding and effectively applying the full range of articulations can make the difference between sounding lifeless and sounding authentic.

To kick off a new series on emulating orchestral instruments, we’re going to explore four general methods for getting the full range of articulations out of today’s software instruments and sample libraries. In future columns, we’ll dive deeper into specific sections: strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion, and more.

Separate Patches

In the old days, practically all sampled instrument patches contained just one articulation. For instance, pizzicato strings would be loaded separately from arco strings, and each required their own dedicated sequencer track and MIDI channel. Many current sample libraries still use this approach to varying degrees, although the more advanced developers are moving away from it. In order to have the most common articulations of a full orchestra available in a DAW, a composer’s template can easily number in the hundreds of dedicated tracks (see Figure 1). To choose a particular articulation, you just arm that track in your DAW and play. The template’s grouping, naming, and color-coding is paramout, as is an intimate familiarity with the overall layout.

In a DAW, this technique has its advantages. Many composers still work this way today, as it provides a more detailed visual overview of what each instrument is playing at any given moment than one sequencer track per instrument can. However, it makes creating a notation file of the score much more complicated, and relying on separate patches for each articulation is very limiting for live performance.


Made popular by the original power soft sampler, Nemesys GigaSampler (later TASCAM GigaStudio), key-switching uses the keys at the extreme range of the keyboard (usually the lowest octaves of an 88-key controller) to switch between common articulations on the fly—because they’re outside the playable range of the real instrument. (An analogy is how the reverse-color keys on a B-3 organ change presets.) Key-switching is used in most current soft samplers, including Native Instruments Kontakt, MOTU MachFive, Vienna Instruments, and others.

A key-switched patch loads with a number of articulations available. As an example, pressing the C0 key could activate a solo Violin’s sustained arco patch; C#0 may activate the marcato articulations, D0 cues up the pizzicato sound, and so on (see Figure 2).

An obvious advantage is that playing an instrument becomes intuitive once you’re familiar with a patch’s specific key-switch assignments. This is a great for live performance, as it allows a greater range of immediate playing techniques similar to an acoustic instrument. Since most common articulations occur within a single patch and sequencer track, it simplifies the DAW environment and makes notation from sequenced parts easier. A potential disadvantage is that keyswitched patches often include a predetermined number of articulations whether you need them or not; so patches use more RAM and take longer to load than managing the individual articulations separately would.

Fig. 2. In this solo cello patch in Kontakt, pink keys switch between articulations: arco, staccato, pizzicato, tremolo, alf-step trill, and whole-step trill. Blue keys indicate the playable note range, corresponding to that of the real instrument.

Common MIDI controllers—such as wheels, a sweep pedal, buttons, sliders, and ribbons—have long been used to creatively modulate openly synth-y sounds. However, they’ve been largely underutilized for controlling samples until recently.

As the scripting capabilities of soft samplers get more advanced, sound library developers are using these modulators in more creative ways and designing more user-friendly graphical interfaces, which greatly enhances the playability of sampled sounds. However, this also means that different libraries are implemented with different uses for the controllers, which requires the composer to learn how multiple developers think.

Since many of us mix, layer, and combine different sound libraries on a regular basis, it makes it more challenging to sequence a performance with one instrument and then change sounds to a patch from another library, as the methods for controlling a sound and switching articulations may not be implemented the same way. For instance, a patch in one library may use MIDI velocity and expression to control volume and timbre (respectively), whereas a different library’s patch may ignore velocity and use the modulation wheel to crossfade between different dynamic levels.

Fig. 3. The advanced view of Vienna Instruments Pro. Note the elaborate switching matrix in the upper middle, hich maps articulations that change automatically based on your performance.
Custom Interfaces

As the demand for greater control and playability of samples has grown over the years, several major developers have gone the route of creating their own architecture and interface. EastWest Play, Vienna Instruments, Audio Impressions 70 DVZ Strings, Garritan Aria, and several others forego the popular Kontakt, EXS24 (Logic), and MachFive platforms in favor of their own approaches to sample control and playability (see Figure 3). Th is often results in an even wider range of articulations and a more natural sound, based on analyzing your realtime touch and playing alongside more traditional MIDI controls. In the case of 70 DVZ Strings, a very comprehensive set of string articulations is always available and the entire section is controlled from only five MIDI channels thanks to a sophisticated graphical interface.

As one would imagine, this further complicates compatibility if you have go-to sounds in more than one platform. A recorded MIDI track doesn’t often translate well from one platform to another, which means you’ll need to play it for each platform involved. However, the benefits of enhanced control and playability often override the challenges, and we’ll explore these features in greater depth in the future.

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