Orchestral manoeuvres on the cheap

If you want orchestral sounds in your music but can’t afford the real thing or more expensive sample collections, you’ve come to the right place.

There’s arguably no genre on earth that wouldn’t benefit from the injection of a little bit of orchestral flavour. The versatility, richness and sheer depth of traditional classical instruments means that they can be adapted to fit almost any style of music (yes, including death metal – actually, especially death metal). As long as you’re picking the right type of instruments and paying attention to arrangements, then any track you make can be given another layer of shine with the judicious addition of some orchestration.

The problem, however, is that getting an entire orchestra into your DAW can be tricky – we’re going to go out on a limb here and say that you probably don’t have immediate access to the London Philharmonic, let alone a massive live room to record them in. VSTs or sample banks that rely solely on orchestral content can be hideously expensive – and that’s where this step-by-step guide comes in.

Here, we’re going to show you how you can use orchestral instruments even if you’re on a tight budget, relying on free VSTs to do so. We’re going to offer up a selection of brass, string and woodwind sounds and show you how you can create them without having to reach for your wallet. Along the way we’ll touch on some of the key things you need to know when mixing and processing orchestral sounds.

Programmed perfection?

We do, however, need to get one common misconception out of the way first. No matter how well you program your free plug-ins and no matter what you do to their sounds, it’s never going to be quite as good as the London Philharmonic. Nor, of course, should you expect it to be: orchestras are in demand precisely because it’s so difficult to digitally replicate their sound.

Instead, what you should be looking to do is to create an effect so good that, in passing, a listener is unlikely to discern the difference. There are a few tricks you can employ to achieve this, and although their application for different instruments varies, they’ll all be extremely useful to you if you’re looking to go down this road.

To get you under way, we’d recommend finding some recorded instrument examples to listen to. Try to find ones which isolate the different orchestral instrument groups: brass, woodwind, strings and percussion. Analyse the characteristics of the sound of each. Brass instruments, for example, often have quite a sharp, punchy sound, along with a quick attack. Strings, meanwhile, have a very slow attack, and are best when several are playing in unison.

From the examples you find you should immediately be able to hear that envelopes will be crucial to any orchestral work you intend to undertake. The attack, decay, sustain and release phases are going to be the first things you use to shape your sound – and they’re the ones that will have the greatest impact on it. The attack stage, in particular, is worth spending a fair bit of time messing around with. The one thing you’ll rapidly find out is how natural – even instinctive – this process becomes; eventually you’ll be able to ‘feel’ when you’ve got an instrument sounding right. Try it for yourself if you don’t believe us!

Of course, there are also plenty of other ways to make this all work. As you’ll see in the boxouts, one of these methods is to use layering, piling multiple notes and pitches on top of one another to create a sense of an entire section going about its business. This takes a little more work and trial-and-error experimentation, but it’s well worth it, and if done right – along with panning and some clever mixing – you’ll find that you can create amazingly rich soundscapes.

The FX effect

Finally, don’t forget any effects units you might have. While you may want to stay away from chorus effects – trust us, the layering of notes will work much better – you should be piling on the reverb and saturation. Essentially, you’re looking to glue your sounds together into a cohesive, harmonious whole, and these two will help you to achieve that. Don’t go completely overboard – you’re going for veracity here, not insanity – but do have some fun while you’re at it.

And remember: all of this is about making it sound as if what’s coming out of your instruments is actually being played by real-life human beings. It’s an illusion, of course, but one that’s well worth creating. Check the boxouts to see some of these techniques in action.

Free and easy

So: you have no money (don’t we all). What VSTs should you be looking at to fuel your orchestral desires?

To start with you’ll almost certainly be focusing on synths to do the dirty work. Samplers and ROMplers (we’ll explain what those are in a moment) are where the real money starts flowing, so we’ll be recommending some free-to-use synths here.

DSK Music is a good company to kick off with. Its free DSK Brass and DSK Strings are generally regarded as among the best freeware orchestral instruments. These two make it extremely simple to create great sounds, mostly thanks to their built-in presets and easy-to-use envelope modules. While you’ll still need to spend some time tweaking things and layering notes, you’d do well to check these out. DSK also makes a World StringZ instrument (Celtic harp, cumbus, dobro, kanun, koto, dulcimer, tar, Turkish oud) which is also worth checking out. If nothing else, it’ll be handy at 2am when you listen to your track and decide, “What this needs is more oud…”

We can also recommend Ugo’s String Theory. While this VST focuses more on plucked strings than played ones, it’s still an immensely powerful little instrument, and one which you’ll quickly grow to love. We’d also recommend Sound Magic’s Orchestral Strings One.

Finally, the woodwinds. It’s a testament to VST programmers that dedicated plug-ins even exist for these, and very good ones, too. Our favourite is Jazz-Boy, by Wahnsyn, which gives you a brilliantly authentic woodwind emulator. It’s really easy to use and comes with a built-in reverb section. Beyond that we’d recommend checking out Easytoolz’s easy#oboe o1 Free, which despite having a ridiculous name is a simple little plug-in that’s perfect for basic oboe sounds. Venuc’s Wisine is another woodwind synth, and one that offers a touch more functionality.

You’ll notice that we haven’t specified an orchestral drum VST. That’s deliberate – any drum VST worthy of a place in your studio will be able to give a good interpretation of an orchestra’s drum kit.

And as to that question of samplers and ROMplers: a sampler records and imports sounds to chop up and modulate. A ROMpler has no record functionality but comes with a set of bundled sounds. Most of the big-name orchestral instruments, such as Spectrasonics Trilian and Garritan Ultimate Collection, are sample-based – and come with hefty price tags. While they are all superb, you may want to steer clear of them for now.

Final finale

So once you’ve found your orchestral sounds, what exactly do you do with them? It’s a fair question. After all, it’s easy for us to talk about using the sounds in a track, but another to actually do it in practice. And while you could easily produce a track consisting of just orchestral sounds (and very good it’ll be too, if you follow the steps outlined in this guide) the chances are you’re here because you want to incorporate these kinds of sounds into your own music.

So imagine this: on a dubstep beat, lace a percussion-free bridge with alternating orchestral strings and powerful wub-wub bass. Or how about a hip hop beat that takes a powerful horn section (such as MOP’s Back At It) and matches it to a thumping set of drums? Even better: resample your orchestral creation and chop it up to create an entirely new track.

Can you see what we’re getting at here? Once you’ve mastered the basic techniques for creating lifelike orchestral sounds, there’s virtually no limit to the kinds of music you can create (bar, perhaps, your imagination). One of the critical things is not to be bound by any rules whatsoever. Classical and orchestral music can often come across as very rigorous, and it comes with a huge amount of cultural baggage. But shake all that off and you’ll find yourself with a powerful new production tool at your disposal.

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