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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.






Shortly after the direct sound reaches your ears, the next wave of sound will follow. The early reflections are sound waves that bounce off a surface or two before finding their way to your ears.



Finally, after the early reflections reach you the last straggling sound waves to reach your ears will find their way home. These sound waves are called the tail of your sound. These sound waves have bounced all over the place. They’ve hit walls, furniture, and even each other several times until they no longer resemble the original source and instead appear as a simple and subtle wash of sound.





You’ll need to recreate each of these stages of sound if you want to create a realistic reverb for your music.


C.1) Creating Your Own Reverb


Your direct sound will come from whatever sound library you’re using (this is called the “Dry Signal”), so the first real wave of sound you’ll need to create will be the early reflections.


Your first tool for creating early reflections is Pre-Delay. Pre-Delay is how much time it takes the first early reflections to reach your ears after the source sound already has. This parameter helps determine the size of your room, after all, the larger the room the further the early reflections will need to travel in order to bounce off a surface and then reach your ear.


Sound travels relatively slowly, only 1 foot (30.48 centimeters) per millisecond. This means that for every extra foot the sound needs to travel, there will be another millisecond added to the Pre-delay. This should be reflected in your settings. As a general rule, 10-20 milliseconds worth of pre-delay works well for most orchestral music.


The second tool for creating your early reflections will be the high-frequency response (or High-cut). The High-cut refers to the frequencies removed from the original source sound to create the reverb. This tool is used to “fill” the room that your sound takes place. Rooms with lots of soft surfaces like carpeting, curtains, etc. will absorb more high frequencies from your sound than rooms with lots of hard surfaces like marble, stone, and wood. You’re welcome to try experimenting with different settings, but typically having the high frequencies roll off around 3-4 Khz is realistic for most concert hall-type settings.


Finally, the last tool needed to create your reverb will be the decay time. Decay time determines how long your tail sound waves will remain audible before they’ve bounced off too many surfaces to be heard any longer. The longer your decay time, the larger the room you’ve created. Generally speaking, a decay time of 1.5 to 3 seconds is relatively realistic for most concert halls.


All of this information is important to know, but that doesn’t mean that you have to reinvent the wheel every time you’re looking to apply reverb to your libraries. If you’d prefer, you are more than welcome to work with a preset of your choice (typically those labeled “hall” or “room” are the safest options).

C.2) Applying Reverb


There are many different strategies you can use to apply reverb. One of the most time-consuming but customizable options is to use reverb as an insert effect on each individual track. However, this can get messy quickly.


A much more efficient strategy is to set up an Effects track for each major section of your orchestra. The reverb can be applied to each of these tracks instead and then all the instrument tracks can be routed to their respective send effect. This helps limit the number of reverb plugins that you’ll need to keep track of.


A send effect is any effect added to a dedicated track in your DAW. The other tracks can then be routed to this track and send a percentage of their signal to be impacted by the effect. For reverb, your send effect should be mixed to 100% wet, so that 100% of the sound sent to it will be treated as reverb. Then it’s up to you to determine what percentage of each track you should send to the dedicated reverb track.


As you send each instrument to the reverb track, listen carefully to its sound. Start with 0% send and then gradually increase the percentage until you just start to hear the impact of the reverb itself. That should be all that you need, but you’re more than welcome to experiment until you find the right mix for your music.


C.3) Mixing Wet and Dry Sound Libraries

At times you may find yourself working with a combination of different libraries. Some dry and others wet. In these scenarios, you’ll still need to apply reverb to both. However, the wet libraries won’t need nearly as much tail on their sound. Instead focus mostly on applying similar early reflections to both libraries, then spend time matching the decay time for the wet library as closely as you can on the reverb you apply to the dry libraries.


CREATING YOUR MOCKUP

After you’ve taken the time to set up the space for your arrangement by configuring your mic positions, panning, and reverb the last step to setting up your mockup is to simply enter all of the notes from your arrangement into your DAW of choice. If you pre-arranged your music with notation software this is a simple matter of importing the midi data (or entering it all by hand). However, if you’re starting from scratch you can follow whatever process you have for composing and orchestrate your ideas as you see fit. Once you’re ready, you can start using the information in the following chapters to clean up your sound and make each instrument sound more realistic.


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