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Epic Music : The Making of

Epic Music : The Making of

Categories // Epic Music

A beginner's guide to a beginner's work

A small revolution in the world of computer music has occurred two years ago, and the goal of this article is to explain what is now theoretically possible to do for the would-be composer with a home computer...

Spoiler warning ! Reading more might change your mind about the "epicness" of soundtrack music !

So in 2012 64bit operating systems become the norm, and it is then usual for home computers to manage 8Go, 16Go or even more for memory allocation. Ok, but what's the point ?

Mundane applications don't need that much to work, but musical software, especially those relying on sample banks do. To be honest, even my 16 Go make me feel cramped sometimes. Another corollary is that, to use such big amounts of data, solid state drives -mind the plural- are also necessary. We are living the golden age of sampling !

But what is sampling ?

Basically, it is recording a real sound to play it back with a software (called a sampler he!). First samplers (in the 90ies) where good only at playing electronic drums or voice gimmicks, playing back, let's say, the sound of a violin sounded horribly fake : if your sample was the record of a long C4 mf, oh yes you could play something pitched A4, or even C3 ! but as the computer was just changing the speed at which the sample was read, it was no longer a violin, the harmonics were out of tune, and the formant (a component of the sound that does not change, or only slightly, with the pitch) was transposed as well. 

And what about velocity ? If you applied only a slight pressure on your keyboard, your violin sample was played quieter, but it was still a mezzo-forte violin long note ! And don't expect to play a staccato with that sample.

Today, a modern solo violin sampler bank contains:

  • records of each note, at each tune (C3, C#3, D3..)
  • each in turn recorded at different velocity (from ppp to fff)
  • different banks, that you can call instantly while you're playing (it's called a "keyswitch") for each length of notes (sustained notes, staccato, spiccato, pizzicato), sustained notes includes tremolo, vibrato, molto vibrato and other styles to reflect the numerous expressions of the instrument (eg. "lyrical")
  • to avoid that repeated notes sound exactly like the previous one, especially short notes, it is usual to make multiple takes (6 or even 16 !) of the same note that are played back in turn, to avoid the "machine-gun effect"
  • and last, being more important for the recording of "ensemble" (eg a violin section of 12 players), each of these recording is made using three (or more) microphones, one near the players (the "close mic"), one where the audience would seat (the "main mic") and the third far away from the stage to capture the "ambiance" of the room or hall, so that during the mixing process, the engineer has the choice between clarity or natural reverberation by just opening or closing those microphones.

It makes a lot of data, just for a single section !

Nevertheless, such are the capabilities of computers, that it is now possible to align a 1st violin section, a 2nd violin section, violas, cello, basses, trumpets, French horns, trombones, winds, drums and more !

But the most impressing component of your "home symphonic orchestra" might be the choirs. By a careful study of the human voice and language, a programmer managed to build a bank that can "sing" the text you type !

So, yes, chances are that most of the music you hear from TV, commercials, and cheap movies are made on a computer (and not a very expensive one !)... But don't imagine that it's easy to do ! Just as a guitar, a virtual symphonic orchestra takes years to master, that is, to make it express what you have in your heart, and not just reproduce the clichés that advertisement and trailers are fond of.

It is a question of years - if it is not already done ! - before this kind of music become widespread thanks to the progress of technology. Rather than being scared of this new breakthrough that could, in a few years, replace "real orchestra", I think we should applause to this formidable collective work of musicians, sound engineers, software programmers and computer technicians.

And anyway, nothing will ever beat the thrill of a real orchestra playing live !



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