The Virtual Orchestra Part 3 of 9: Woodwinds

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Sampled woodwinds are generally easier to navigate than the brass instruments we looked at last month. Their rounder attack, lighter tonal weight, and mellower timbre makes blending, layering, and mixing sounds less of a challenge. However, there are characteristic articulations and tonal combinations that are crucial to fulfilling woodwinds’ role as orchestral “glue.” Here are some basics

Good Writing

In the past decade, woodwinds have been sadly underutilized. I can’t tell you how many commercial TV and movie scores I hear that treat woodwinds as an afterthought, leaning instead on soaring strings, barking brass, and explosive percussion, often with clichéd and derivative results.

This was not the approach of Debussy, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bernstein (Elmer or Leonard), or John Williams, who all understood the crucial role woodwinds play. When woodwinds are absent there’s a sonic hole in the orchestra. Their strength lies not only in bridging the timbres between strings and brass within the ensemble, but also in highlighting and reinforcing a melody, rhythmically propelling the harmonic bed, adding flourishes and colors distinct from the other orchestral sections, and inflecting overall moods from sweet to downright disturbing.

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Fig. 1. Berlin Woodwinds sampled different musicians for each chair. Here, first, second, and third flutes are loaded, each with a different articulation patch.

Fig. 2. Both Albion and CineSamples Hollywoodwinds lean more towards ensembles and than solo instruments. World-class musicians who play on the best film scores were used. Balance control of the mic arrays are provided, and the results are quite stunning.


Orchestral woodwinds typically consist of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. They are usually written in either pairs or threes according to the numbers of players in each section. Piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet and contrabassoon are extensions of those sections.

A limitation with many (but not all) of the brass libraries featured last month is that you are usually only given a choice between a solo instrument and an ensemble of typically three players. This makes three-part writing more difficult by either being forced to use the same “player” of a section for each part—which can sound unnatural—or resorting to mixing patches from different libraries, which can create blending issues.

The current top woodwind libraries seem to be more generous in this regard, usually giving you more solo instruments. Cinesamples CineWinds Pro provides a great collection of ethnic instruments, such as Irish flute, pennywhistle, soprano and tenor recorders, border pipes, Uilleann pipes, and a few baroque and Renaissance wind instruments. Orchestral Tools’ Berlin Woodwinds goes so far as to actually provide separate piccolo; first, second, and third flutes; first and second oboes; English horn; first and second clarinets; and first and second bassooons based on different sampled musicians for each chair, which easily allows for proper writing for woodwinds in either pairs or threes without duplicating “players” (see Figure 1).

Though not always appropriate, often your string melodies will sound more realistic when doubled by flutes, oboes and/or clarinets. Depending on the passage, either a solo instrument or ensemble patches of two or three players will work nicely. The woodwind layer will slightly distract the ear from the attack envelope of the strings, which is usually the giveaway that samples are being used. Doubling brass harmonic beds with woodwinds serves both to soften the brass timbre and to add complexity to the resulting combined sound. If you’re jumping between sample libraries with your brass patches, an added woodwind layer can help unify the sounds and make the patch-hopping less conspicuous.

Although not as detailed and thorough as other libraries, both Spitfire Albion and Cinesamples Hollywoodwinds (a supplemental library to CineWinds) provide fantastic woodwind textures, runs, and patterns that are pre-determined mixes of various sections that sound extremely realistic as melodic doublers, splashes of color, and background pads (see Figure 2). In many instances these limited patches can actually sound more satisfying than constructing sections from individual instrument patches, due in part to the world-class quality of the players and rooms sampled. Also, they were performed as an ensemble so they already blend naturally. When used as background, the buildup of players on chords is not as “telltale sampled” as with brass and strings.

Keep in mind that woodwinds aren’t always obviously present. It’s not necessary to mix them up at equal levels with the strings and brass, as this will likely sound forced and unnatural. Oftentimes, a properly balanced woodwind section is barely noticeable in a tutti passage until you mute it, and only then is its absence really felt. Of course, solo woodwind lines that are meant to carry a melody on their own must speak properly, and EastWest Hollywood Orchestral Woodwinds is especially good for solo lines that need to be big and up-front or featured in a close chamber context. Listening to a variety of well-recorded orchestral scores will help put the proper balance of the woodwinds in your mind’s ear. And as with all wind instruments, remember that they don’t play all the time.

Timbre and Articulations

Mellow harmony beds, poignant lines, lyric melodies with vibrato, bouncy accompaniment, and harsh dissonances are all the terrain of woodwinds. Their timbre gets brighter as they play louder, though to a lesser degree than with brass. As covered last month, most of the better libraries today implement combinations of the modulation wheel and/or note velocity to crossfade and switch between multiple dynamic layers. In addition, a wind controller such as an Akai EWI or even a simple breath controller works well with woodwind samples for shaping the contour of lines (much better than with brass samples) as long as your MIDI control assignments are set up properly.

Woodwinds, like brass, are monophonic, and therefore benefit greatly from legato mode. Grace notes and ornaments are common for woodwinds, and most of the libraries provide separate patches of actual trills. Realistic trills and ornaments can be performed with legato patches; however, care must be taken in the execution. In addition to overlapping the notes to engage the legato transition sample, each note usually has to be restruck again. Only CineWinds and the Vienna Symphonic Library actually allow for effective trilling between a depressed key and another note.

As with brass, different libraries approach dynamic and articulation control in different ways, so get to know each library intimately to get the most out of them.