An in-depth guide to using a virtual orchestra

AudioJungle Author, Vlad Zekrevsy (aka, Soundlufs) provides this incredibly useful guide on how best to use each section of a virtual orchestra.

Whether in the concert hall, the opera, a movie soundtrack, or a video game, the “classical” orchestra is still a major player in the contemporary music scene. That’s pretty amazing considering the orchestral concept was conceived more than 250 years ago. I personally think that the success of orchestras today owes to the immense work put into it throughout history. Every instrument of the orchestra has gone through centuries of evolution, selection, and improvement, especially once better manufacturing technologies could provide more complex parts (such as valves, tubes etc.). Every aspect of the orchestration and musical application was deeply researched, and tested in real life practice.

Indie music producers working “in the box” (using computers as the only mean to create music) enjoy working with those orchestral instruments through sampled libraries, a thing unimaginable just a generation ago. In this thriving market of orchestral samples, young music writers are exposed to some of the finest sounds you’ll get from an orchestra, and naturally the more familiar you are with the real thing, the better you’ll handle the virtual counterpart.

At a glance, the full orchestra is a structure comprised of four independent sections: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. I stress the independence part, because the traditional orchestration guideline is to keep each section well balanced within itself, and sound good in isolation. That’s why all sections have a structure similar to the canonical human choir known as SATB (Sopranos, Altos, Tenors, Basses) which allows them to spread well across the notes of a chord, if put simply. Percussion is no exception as it features bass instruments, middle register instruments, and some high pitched metals.

String Section

Classical music symphony orchestra string section performing, female violinist playing on foreground, hands close up

The string section is the busiest one, due to the long stamina string players have (wind instruments depend on breathing, and usually require more physical effort). It is also widely accepted that string instruments possess the most complex sound waves which brings them closer to the human voice. Also, the strings are less weary on listeners’ ears, being able to play longer passages without losing attention and interest. The strings are the largest group with around 50-60 players in a standard sized orchestra. This is not done for the sake of loudness, as unlike a choir of human voices string instruments don’t amplify strongly in large groups. It is done instead to generate the ever pleasing “chorus effect” which masks the imperfections of any individual instruments in a fluid, well connected legato sound.

String sections include five groups: Violins I, Violins II, Violas, Celli, and the Basses. Some sample libraries tend to omit the Violins II group to save on cost, but that doesn’t mean you should omit them in your writing! Assume you’re mixing these virtual instruments over a multi-tracking session, meaning you can reuse the same sample set for a second group of violins (there are “transposition tricks” involving neighbouring samples, and some panning and eq too). This is especially true for a major library like Vienna Instruments, which always provides just one Violins set, which is centered and has to be processed during the mix.

The harp is also considered a part of the string section, but its specific structure dictates individual treatment, and some basic knowledge. Thankfully, the sampled counterpart is very easy to use for accents and embellishments, sounding great in most cases.

Rare is the case when just one or two string groups play while others are completely disengaged. If you go through orchestral scores, you’ll see that coordinated work of all string groups together is a must for the most satisfying of results. Of course, while some groups get to play the melody in particular passages, others have a supportive role and acoustically stay in the background (largely unnoticed to untrained ear), but they are incredibly important to the overall string sound.

Getting yourself a string sample library can be just as difficult as choosing an apartment. Not only do they come with a long list of virtues and shortcomings, but sampled strings suit different situations with various success. Luckily, nowadays you can get yourself several string libraries without breaking the bank, and if you plan to work a lot with orchestral music, that is a good strategy. I’d suggest though, to make those purchases separately, and once you get the first string library, take your time to learn it well so you get an idea of what you’re missing. Additionally, I would suggest giving priority to the sound and the recording quality, because a less than stellar sounding string section is hard to “fix in the mix”.    

Woodwind Section

Alto Saxophone woodwind instrument

Woodwinds were born to be the most expressive and soul penetrating soloists of the orchestra. Each of the core members of the woodwind section: Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, and the Bassoon, resemble four super-heroes, each with individual abilities, and unique voices. The principal players demonstrate those expressive qualities in solo fragments (which are best placed sparingly throughout the piece), while the usual ensemble playing is done with a pair of players for each instrument type, with some of the more epic orchestrations calling for three players of each type.  

Unlike the strings, the woodwinds are not constructed in the same manner. I won’t go into technical details you can find elsewhere, but I will say that each woodwind instrument type is built differently enough to be easily distinguishable inside an orchestra.

The concert flute is the icy, windy, ethereal voice of the four. Unique to the flute sound is the pleasant windy “pufffff”, being the running air noise which is a major part of its appeal. You should never destroy it with EQ, or else the flute becomes metallic and dull sounding. Concert flute is also one of those instruments that doesn’t have prominent slides in pitch, so you should never add artificial portamento as its legato transitions are sharp and focused.  

The Oboe has a special, romantic quality, often used in the context of a single “human” voice in contrast to the crowded sounds of a full orchestra. It has a penetrating, “birdy” timbre, but while mixing it is important to preserve the body presence (the warm “zzzz” resonance in the bottom) to keep it rich and silky (you can hear some great cinematic oboe sounds in sea segments of John Barry’s “King Kong” soundtrack).  

The Clarinet is one of the most popular instruments in the world, widely used in different genres such as gypsy music, klezmer bands, jazz, folklore, marching bands and – of course – classical orchestras where its timbre is much softer and draws less attention, also due to the fact that orchestral clarinet players don’t use vibrato. As a side note, vibrato has a very prominent role in shaping the timbre of any instrument including the human voice, adding sparkle and texture.

Clarinet provides huge effective range, but it comes with the difficulty of having to switch to differently sounding registers, high and low. Players learn to compensate for the jump, and seasoned orchestrators keep an eye on this issue. But since the sampled clarinet usually features a smoothed out timbre across the range, we can enjoy the luxury and never bother.

The Bassoons usually provide agile and funky bass voice for the Woodwind section (sometimes for the whole orchestra, especially if the string Basses are not engaged). Additionally, the bassoon excels in smooth and expressive solos, usually exploiting its higher register. Contrary to the clarinet, classical bassoonists use vibrato in the melodic passages, which creates a “scratchy” vintage, almost saxophonic type sound, which sounds delicious when not overdone.

There are tons of woodwind sample products now, and they keep coming. My own purchase decision to invest in Vienna Instruments’ woodwinds was made years ago, when there was less to choose from. But I still keep reading in forums people praising VSL woodwinds, claiming their quality remains unsurpassed. That’s a far reaching statement, but the fact that VSL legato patches benefit from full length dedicated samples per each transition (contrary to using legato “chunk”, which has to fade into the regular sustain sample) still keeps me thrilled with the results. Interestingly enough, VSL both includes the other patches, with fade into sustain – and to my ears, the magic indeed disappears!  For clarity’s sake, however, I’ll remind you that VSL Instruments don’t sound polished “out of the box”, and need some mixing skills on the user’s part.

Brass Section

Polished brass trumpet on green background. 3d

The Brass core structure also includes four instrument types: the French Horns and the Tuba, which have a spread sound as they are directed away from the audience, and the Trumpets and Trombones are directed towards them, so the sound is very focused and penetrating. Dealing with the brass section requires a good ear for the traditional repertoire, making sure you’re not overusing them to the extent they become ineffective, too self evident, and depleted of their magic. In real life brass often works as an extra layer of power, when strings and woodwinds reach their limit, and a passage calls for that special “oomph”. Of course, brass instruments excel in quiet, majestic solos and chords too. But if you get there, you already know what you’re doing.

In reality, brass instruments (except perhaps trumpets) are not so easy to handle by the player, to support breath, to hit the right notes etc. Moreover, if you plan your piece’s development ahead of time you might not need them as often, and this is naturally dictated by the ups and downs of your piece. If you do want them active in a long sequence, perhaps you should simplify the part and make sure it has mostly repetitive and supporting notes, so it sounds natural in a brass context.  

Brass sample libraries come in different shapes and sizes. I want to mention Hollywood Brass by East West as it has enjoyed much universal praise since its launch, and is considered by many to be the best volume of the Hollywood Series. In my view, what makes it so special is the masterful recording engineering done by Shawn Murphy (google him to join my excitement) which contributed both to the warm color of these brasses, and their spacious positioning, which screams Hollywood scoring stage sound. So present, so exciting. Thumbs up!

Percussion section

Orchestra Seats and Timpani on Stage

The Percussion section is characterized by one player, who has never missed a single concert in the last four centuries, playing the timpani, and several other instruments, moving around their area, reaching for all kinds of objects to hit an the right moment, and performing elaborate solos on pitched instruments like the xylophone, vibraphone etc.

The timpani is the leading drum type in the orchestra with many classical pieces using just the timpani as their percussion section. It’s actually a hybrid instrument, providing both the percussive “thump” sound and the pitched bass note. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that it cannot serve as a funky bass like the bassoon or string basses, having only a small group of pitched drums to hit at any one time. Timpani are usually tuned to the main tonal pitches of a given cue, giving them additional weight and prominence in the right moments. A unique feature of the timpani (and large gongs) is the sustainable rumble created by rolls. Unlike the snare, or even the cymbals, the timpani can roll with single hits smoothed out completely, resulting in a long sustained note.      

Most of the time the percussion section provides accents, special effects and brilliant metallic shimmer. Instruments like the snare, various shakers and tambourines are sometimes used as a regular rhythm section – playing the groove.

For percussion, I would also suggest picking “out of the box” sounding samples, as a time saving measure. Often several accent hits is all you need from the percussion in your piece, so putting too much effort into its mixing or processing is not advised.


Conductor directing symphony orchestra with performers on background.

To sum it all up, some traditional orchestration training is essential for good results with sampled orchestras. Though I think there is a sweet spot of gaining just the right amount of knowledge from classical sources and not overdoing it, because sooner or later you will find that things behave differently in the digital realm. So leave some room for the additional rules and practical knowledge you get both from online sources, and your own working experience. The right blend between classical training and digital audio proficiency (in its broadest sense, including virtual instruments, mixing and hardware) seems like a winning combination nowadays.                 

Check out my AudioJungle profile and send me any questions about orchestral sample libraries in this thread. I wish you lots of fun working with those lovely sounds!

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Dom Hennequin

About the Author Dom Hennequin

Dom is Envato's Video & Content Marketing Specialist. He previously worked as the company's Community Content Coordinator, and as the founder and host of the Envato Famous 5.