Practically any instrument you can think of can be put
into an orchestral setting these days, especially in film, TV, and video
game scores. However, there are a few auxiliary instruments commonly
found in symphonic orchestras in addition to the brass, woodwind, string
and percussion families; such as piano, celeste, harpsichord,
harmonium, and concert harp. Let’s explore some important details of
applying piano and harp in an orchestral context.
When there’s a featured soloist, the grand piano is
typically down front just below the conductor, giving it a full and
present sound. The piano is sideways so that the open lid projects the
sound to the audience. There’s no pronounced high-to-low-note stereo
panning as often heard in the “player’s perspective” option found in
most of today’s software pianos. There’s no rule that says you can’t use
this, and many players prefer it for solo, rock, or pop arrangements,
but for an authentic orchestra concert sound, the side position is what
|Fig. 1. 8Dio 1928 Legacy Steinway piano offers both player and audience perspectives.
Several piano libraries have sampled their pianos in multiple perspectives that include the side, including 8Dio 1928 Legacy Steinway (see Figure 1), Imperfect Samples Ebony Concert Grand and Steinway Concert Grand, Synthogy Ivory II, and EastWest Quantum Leap Pianos.
If you have a piano library that you really love and it
was only sampled from the player’s perspective, you can still easily
create the concert position. Simply narrow the pan width from stereo to
near mono, and use a good reverb with a lot of early reflections to
create a basic room ambiance—a convolution reverb like EastWest/Quantum
Leap Spaces works great. A bit of highpass and lowpass filtering
with a gentle slope will help move the piano back into the orchestra a
bit further if the original library was sampled with a large, up-close
When the piano is not a featured instrument, it usually
sits further back in the orchestra near the percussion. Often, these are
either smaller grands or upright pianos. A piano not as detailed as the
“big guns” is often preferred, and again, you’d collapse it to
To play a sampled concert harp properly, you must
understand the instrument. To oversimplify, the harp is diatonic and can
play a maximum of seven notes in a repeating scale that covers over six
octaves. Tuned to a Cb major scale at its base position, foot
pedals move individual sets of notes up either a half step or a whole
step. This often results in repeated notes on adjacent strings.
| Fig. 2. Both articulation combos of VSL Harp II offers five different articulations that are switched with the mod wheel.
For instance, to create a glissando in C major up and down the strings, the Cb, Eb, and Gb pedals would be moved up one position (a half-step) to create the needed C major triad. However, in a gliss all strings sound, so what about the other notes? You have no choice but to also move the Db and Ab notes up a half-step, resulting in the second and sixth scale tones sounding. The Fb stays in its original position, resulting in two sets of strings playing E natural in the C major chord. The only note left is Bb, which can either go up a half-step (making the C chord a major seventh) or going up a whole-step to B#, essentially doubling the root. These particular inevitabilities are what give the harp its sound and color.
Several harp libraries, like VSL Harps (see Figure 2), Sonivox Symphonic Harp, and Cinesamples CineHarp
give you quite a variety of glisses in various keys and tempos that
will blend with the individual notes samples. But what happens when
those prerecorded glisses don’t work for your piece?
To sound authentic, you can’t just play any chromatic jazz
harmony you like and then run your hands up and down the white keys for
a gliss. Authentic harp parts are tricky, but one thing you can do to
better simulate a gliss is to ignore the key you’re in and record the
MIDI using just the white notes; this will give you a seven-note gliss.
Then select all notes of a certain pitch in each octave and edit them
based on how a harp functions. In our example above, you end up with
each E and C notes being played twice with no F or B in the scale, which is pretty much what a real harp scale would sound like (see Figure 3).
However, no harp is ever perfectly in tune, so the
double-strike of two identical notes may sound too sterile. One quick
fix is to duplicate your MIDI track and instrument, then separate the
duplicated notes from the main notes. Using sample transposition in your
DAW (transposing the MIDI notes up a step and the instrument down a
step, for instance) for one of the harps will result in different
samples playing those redundant pitches, which will sound much more
realistic from the slight chorusing that happens between different
strings playing the same pitch.
| Fig. 3. In this simulated harp gliss, the notes have been adjusted to
retain the seven-note diatonic nature. Notice the redundancy of C and E.
Everyone has their own way of doing things, and I’d like
to share a little of my process. Knowing ahead of time what I want to
accomplish is half the battle. The other half is trial and error.
I often sit down at a piano with blank manuscript paper or
notation software and begin the orchestration by just writing down the
notes for various parts as I hear them in my head. The advantage to this
approach when using orchestral samples is simple: I write what I truly
think is best for the musical arrangement as a right-brain creative
effort, with little thought at the time given to the actual execution. I
then realize that particular orchestration as best I can with my
various sample libraries, largely as a left-brain craft exercise in DAW
sequencing. In other words, it’s much easier to make myself go to the
trouble of changing specific articulations, patches, controllers, and so
on, when the written score is “forcing” me.
In the old days, composers and orchestrators had no choice
but to work this way, and it is obviously a proven approach. Manuscript
paper is still your friend, and it helps you “see” the orchestration in
a particular way that’s valuable to the process.
However, we now have the ability to pull up a
sophisticated sound and just jam on it until we like what we hear, which
was something our musical forebears couldn’t do. So, why not try that?
As much as I hate scrolling through hundreds of synth
patches as the sole approach to searching for inspiration or a musical
idea, there’s something to be said for loading up a good variety of
orchestral articulations and giving yourself some time to improv along
with the track or a guide. In my experience, most of it will be junk;
however, something usually happens that completely opens up my mind’s
approach to using something in the score that I might not have otherwise
imagined. It could be exploring a less common articulation or just
stumbling upon a melodic fragment inspired by the sound. This is the
trial and error aspect, and it’s usually a relatively small investment
in time compared to the reward. Just don’t forget to hit the Record