The Virtual Orchestra part 8 of 9: Piano and Harp

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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.


Fig. 1. 8Dio 1928 Legacy Steinway piano offers both player and audience perspectives. 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 you want.

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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 LeapPianos.

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 timbre.

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 near-mono.


 Fig. 2. Both articulation combos of VSL Harp II offers five different articulations that are switched with the mod wheel. 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.

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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).

 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. 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.

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General Advice

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 button!