VIRTUAL INSTRUMENTS

DDMLLC Studio 2013

I love working with live musicians in the studio. Their performances really bring music to life. Unfortunately, it is very costly. Only the big projects have budgets large enough to cover those expenses. So a lot of the music that I compose and produce for games, television and film utilizes virtual instruments. Like the name implies, virtual instruments are digital recreations of musical instruments that are played utilizing a computer.

The photo above shows my home studio. It is a state-of-the-art, one-person recording studio using computer technology, that allows me to compose and produce professional quality music. It consists of a well-equipped Mac Pro, five flat screen monitors, a 5.1 speaker system, audio and MIDI interfaces, keyboard controller, drum controller, mix controller, high-end music and sound design specific software and over a terabyte library of virtual musical instruments and sound effects. It was decades in the making and took several generations of technology to evolve into what it is today.

While anyone can walk into a music store and call up a cool patch on a synthesizer, there is a lot more to composing with virtual instruments than pressing a button. No matter what type of controller you use, each instrument has its own character and specific uses. Learning how to utilize the technology to create a musical experience, knowing how to play each instrument and how to create a cohesive ensemble is paramount.

Like most current composers for media, I start out writing the music as an electronically-realized score using virtual instruments. This technique allows for unlimited trial and error experimentation that’s just not possible using pen and paper or making changes on the fly in a commercial recording studio. It saves a lot of time and money because I can create demos for a producer, director, game designer, etc. that are accurate representations of what the final music will sound like. I can also work without worrying about the hourly rate of a commercial facility, which can quickly kill creativity.

If budget allows, these virtual tracks are then transcribed into sheet music for each of the live session players, in addition to the full scores for the conductor and session producers. A commercial recording studio is normally used to record all of the live players because they are best equipped for live tracking sessions. Those tracks are then mixed down to the desired format (stereo, surround, etc.). That mix is then mastered into its final delivery state for the specific media format. I have always mixed and mastered in my own studio because I know the equipment and sound characteristics of the room.

If the budget is small, then all of the processes are completed in a computer workstation using virtual instruments.

As with most things associated with the technologically savvy world we live in, composers are faced with learning and being an expert at a myriad of skills. We now routinely fill all the roles that were once segmented. These include composer, arranger, musician, orchestrator, technologist, studio owner, recording engineer, mix engineer, mastering engineer, as well as handling the business, marketing, finance, and the people skills required to please the client.

And as with any career worthy of your time and passion, it takes a very long time to master these skills— and the practice and learning never stops. There is always something else that will challenge you and inspire you to keep going. From my perspective, it’s all worth it!

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5 Comments to “VIRTUAL INSTRUMENTS”

  1. Any processes/books that you consider essential to become a better mix engineer, Duane? I’m benefiting from playlists with A/B tracks that I know sound good for the targeted end-user/sound system have been very helpful over the past 18 months for me.

    • Comparing mixes you like with your own mixes is a great way to learn. You’re also spot on when you mentioned targeted sound system. I’ve had mixes that sounded great in the studio, but when I transferred them to the target platform, the track had to be remixed to compensate for poor frequency response. This is particularly true with interactive games where there can be music, sound effects and voice-overs all triggering at the same time. Virtual mix processors like EQ, compressors, limiters, etc. also play an important role. Experiment with all of them and find out how they can improve your overall mix, whether they are used on individual instruments or to the overall mix. Regardless of whether you use software or hardware tools, the most important part of a mix is your ears. If I’ve been composing and/or mixing all day, I never master a track and send it off immediately. I’ll wait until the next day. When I come back to it, I have a fresher perspective and will hear any misguided things that sounded good at the time. Keep rockin’ it James!

  2. (^ᴗ^)

    Merry Christmas to you and your family, Duane.

  3. Thank you. Merry Christmas to you and yours as well James!

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