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Creating a "Digital Space" for your Arrangements


This blog post is a sample from my latest Ebook, "Guide to Creating Realistic MIDI Mockups." It is taken from the first chapter about prepping for a new Mockup. If you enjoy it, please continue purchasing a copy from the bookstore tab!



SETTING UP YOUR SESSION

Regardless of which library you choose to work with, you’ll want to set up each project the same way. You need to go through your DAW and set the mic positions, panning, and reverb for each of your parts. If you’re like me and prefer to arrange your music with notation software like Finale, Sibelius, or Musescore this will be as simple as opening your DAW, loading a track for each of your instruments, and then setting each of these parameters one at a time (more on this in a bit).

However, if you prefer to skip the notating phase and move directly into your DAW, you’ll want to figure out each of these things before you start arranging your sketch. Each of these parameters are used to create the “physical” space that your digital instruments will inhabit. It’s sort of like picking the room that you’d want your studio musicians to record in.


A) Mic Positions

For most professional libraries you’ll have at least three different types of mic positions that you can choose from.


The Decca Tree Mic is arguably the most important and useful. It’s a collection of three mics (pointed left, center, and right) that are placed about two meters up in the air just behind the conductor. Their job is to record the sound of your entire orchestra from the perspective of the conductor and audience. Unless you have a very specific type of sound in mind, you’ll want to use this as your primary mic, and simply use the other two types as support (if needed).


The Ambient or Out Rig Mics are a series of mics set at the extreme ends of your room (e.g., very far left or right). Their job is to capture more of the room tone and reverb of the room than to capture a clear and balanced sound. I recommend finding a balance between these mics and your tree mics that can serve as your default setting for each of your mockups (this balance will be different for each library).


Finally, the Close or Spot Mics are a series of microphones placed very close to musicians and focus on recording just a few instruments at a time. They capture a lot more detail on each instrument, but can quickly sound unrealistic in a Mockup (it’s unusual to have such a closeup on any individual instrument when working in an ensemble). Generally, you’ll want to use these mics much more sparingly, and only when you need to give a subtle boost to a solo instrument or two.


So to summarize, you want to use your Decca Tree Mic as the default. Then you can use an ambient or out-rig mic to support the sound with a bit more color. You can even set both of these mics to equal volumes, but you should never have an ambient mic be louder than the Decca tree (unless you’re looking for a more experimental sound). Finally, avoid using the close mics, unless you need to add just a little bit to help boost a solo instrument or performer.


B) Panning

Once you’ve selected the mic positions for your digital room, the next step is to figure out the seating arrangement, which is what panning is for.

Panning has to do with creating a physical location for each instrument in your arrangement. If you ever look at an orchestral seating chart, you’ll see that each instrument has a specific location they’ll typically take on stage. These locations have an impact on how each instrument is heard by the audience, which is what we’ll call the stereo field.

The stereo field has two parts: width and directionality.


Stereo Width refers to how much space a sound takes up in the stereo field. For example, a solo brass instrument will have a narrower width than a full violin section. The sound of the brass player comes from a single player sitting on a specific spot on stage, while the sheer number of violin players will take up much more space on stage.





Stereo Direction has to do with where the sound is located on stage from left to right.



Now, fortunately, most sound libraries will come pre-panned by virtue of how the libraries were recorded. However, some will not be. It will be important for you to know which type of library you’re working with before you start your mock-up. If a library is pre-planned then you don’t need to worry too much about making any changes yourself. However, if they aren’t then you might want to make some adjustments.


Most DAWs come with panning abilities built right into each track, usually found on the track’s mixing monitor. However, if you’re looking for some more power you can pick up a dedicated Plugin like 2C-Precedence or S1. If you find yourself needing to make some adjustments, I recommend going by ear. Listen closely to each instrument using some decent headphones and figure out where it needs to be moved. That being said, however, here are some general guidelines for how most instruments in an orchestra should sound:


Woodwinds:

  • Flutes = center-left, medium width

  • Oboes = center-right, medium width

  • Clarinets = center-left, medium width

  • Bassoons = center-right, medium width


Brass:

  • French Horns = center-left, medium width

  • Trumpets = center-right, medium width

  • Trombones = right, medium width

  • Tuba = right, medium width


Strings:

  • Violin 1 = left, wide width

  • Violin 2 = center-left, wide width

  • Viola = center, wide width

  • Cello = center-right, wide width

  • Bass = right, very wide width.


Percussion, Harp, & Keyboards

  • Timpani = center-right, narrow width

  • Percussion = misc., narrow width

  • Piano = left or right, narrow width

  • Harp = left, narrow width.



C) Reverb

Finally, once you’ve set up your mics and figured out your seating arrangement, the last step is to figure out what kind of room your digital performers are recording in.


Using reverb is all about recreating the behavior of your sound in a physical space. Many sound libraries are recorded “wet” meaning that they were recorded in a space like a hall or room with plenty of natural reverb. These libraries won’t typically need you to add any additional reverb at this stage.


Other libraries are recorded “dry” meaning that they were recorded in a space like a studio that has little to no natural reverb. These will require a reverb plugin to make them sound more realistic.


To use a reverb plugin to create a physical space for your sound, you first need to understand how exactly sound behaves in a room.


If you’re in a concert hall, listening to your local orchestra or concert band performing some music, the sound they produce will travel from their instruments to your ears, but not all at once.


The first wave of sound to reach your ears will be something we call direct sound. These are the sound waves that travel directly to your ears without bouncing off any surfaces. This is the purest, least-altered form of sound that will reach you.