The Virtual Orchestra Part 2 of 9: Brass

May 15, 2013

Last month we discussed general methods for getting the most out of software-based orchestral instruments. Now, let’s dig deeper into each section of the orchestra, starting with brass.

Getting realistic brass digitally has always been a challenge. Having played trumpet and French horn in school, I can attest to how quickly a player can switch between a wide range of sounds almost instantly. Soft pads, singing melodies, staccato stabs, swells, blasts, double-tonguing, and flutters are just some of the articulations separated by no more than a breath. So what’s the best way to navigate the options?

Click images below to enlarge.


Fig. 1. In this Logic screenshot, the mod wheel data controls both the volume and timbre of the “Horns and Trombones Long” patch in Spitfire Albion Vol. I.

Fig. 2. In the Velocity Map preset of Cinesamples CineBrass, the lower window sets the note velocity ranges that trigger three different lengths of short notes. When the sustain pedal is down, a long note is played.

Fig. 3. In Kirk Hunter Concert Brass 2 under the Divisions section, the E1 keyswitch chooses four players per single note. The automatic divisi is active, so notes in a chord will be distributed among the four players.


The timbre of all brass instruments goes from warm and mellow when played softly to bright and edgy when played loudly, and all of today’s better libraries provide multiple dynamic layers within the same instrument patch. While some patches may employ key velocity to control the volume and timbre of a note, the modulation wheel is commonly used to go from soft to loud—a level control that’s distinct from MIDI expression and MIDI volume. In some cases, note velocity may be disengaged altogether or used to control another aspect of the sound, like switching between sustained and staccato articulations, as in Cinesamples CineBrass and Kirk Hunter Concert Brass 2.

As the mod wheel changes the volume, the timbre also changes accordingly. This lets you sweep crescendos, descrescendos, and dynamic swells—the hallmarks of orchestral brass passages. This can result in quite a bit of controller data (see Figure 1) that may need to be tweaked later.

Unlike strings, care must be taken if layering ensemble brass patches from different libraries, as it can result in a lack of clarity and a chorusing buildup from too many “players.” It’s more effective to seek out a specific patch that has the right weight and tone, even if that means jumping between libraries between passages.

Layering solo instruments from different libraries can create complex and interesting ensemble textures, however. When layering different patches, keep in mind that rarely respond to identical controller settings in the same way. When layering patches that use the mod wheel for both volume and timbre, for instance, you’ll usually need to record the controller data separately for each, even if the notes were originally copied from one MIDI track to another.

Switching libraries within a piece doesn’t necessarily need to be avoided, as disparate sonic combinations of timbre, size, and weight between elements are now common in modern TV, film, and pop music. Some composers even go out of their way to use artificial processing on their live orchestras and sample supplements to break up the “sameness” of the sound. So when the music calls for an articulation that’s executed particularly well in a specific library’s patch, just go for it.

Short and Long Notes

Brass passages often weave between short notes and long sustains within a single phrase, and all of our featured libraries provide both sustains and variations on staccato, staccatissimo, and marcato together in some of their patches. In addition to the option of dedicating key-switched patches to each articulation, other methods are employed that allow the note lengths to be switched in real-time within the same patch.

A collection of programs in CineBrass and Concert Brass 2 use a combination of velocity and the sustain pedal to choose the note lengths (see Figure 2). EastWest Hollywood Brass uses the mod wheel in some patches to pass through five length variations of short notes. Vienna Instruments, by far the most elaborate control interface, also provides Universal Performances that analyze your playing on the fly and do a fantastic job of translating velocity, note length, and other controller settings into very realistic sounding phrases played in real time.

Legato Transitions

One of the most dramatic developments in recent sampling technology has been legato mode, which allows a sampled instrument to play monophonically when notes are slightly overlapped. Typically, a small transition sample is inserted between the two played notes that adds immensely to the realism, as the transitions are derived from real players’ performances.

Most of the brass libraries feature a fixed number of players for a given patch, which I consider a limitation that usually forces you to choose between, say, a trumpet ensemble of three players per note, or a solo trumpet patch. In Concert Brass 2, automatic divisi progressively (and realistically) halves the number of players as you add notes to chords (see Figure 3). For playing single-note lines, whole, half, quarter, and solo divisions are accessible by key-switching.

Double-Tonguing, Flutters, and Rips

Double (and triple) tongue figures are often a dead giveaway for emulations, and only a few libraries offer true samples of these articulations. CineBrass and Concert Brass 2 employ key-switching to engage both double- and triple-tonguing samples, and the speed of the repeated note(s) is determined by the length of the note played with the following notes sounding on the key release. Hollywood Brass and Vienna Instruments use round-robin samples and require individual note-ons to create the effect.

Flutters and rips are practically impossible to program, but all the libraries here provide pre-sampled flutters and rips to cover most of your needs. Often, these and other effects will be in separate patches and will require their own MIDI track.

Dig In

Mastering each library requires time and dedication, and getting sampled brass to sound realistic typically requires a good bit of MIDI editing. In a mix, jumping between libraries is not as abrupt sounding as when auditioning the sounds on their own, and the ear quickly adjusts when actual music is being played, so don’t be afraid to mix and match as needed. Also, holding different controller methods in your head is necessary to take advantage of the various libraries to their fullest, as none are perfect. However, the results are more than worth the effort.

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