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Virtual Instruments Get Major Play

Virtual instrument plug-ins are maturing fast, and over the last several years have reached such a level of sophistication that many television and film composers have largely dispensed with hardware in favor of software instruments. The benefits are obvious--cost, ease of use and control--while the sound quality is now pretty much indistinguishable from the real thing, where soft synths are replicating hardware. Plus, creating a software simulacrum of some classic keyboards has even allowed the addition of features that expand the capabilities of the original.

By Steve Harvey

Virtual instrument plug-ins are maturing fast, and over the last several years have reached such a level of sophistication that many television and film composers have largely dispensed with hardware in favor of software instruments. The benefits are obvious–cost, ease of use and control–while the sound quality is now pretty much indistinguishable from the real thing, where soft synths are replicating hardware. Plus, creating a software simulacrum of some classic keyboards has even allowed the addition of features that expand the capabilities of the original.

Charlie Clouser returned to television scoring–initially with Fox’s Fastlane–about four years ago, following a decade with Nine Inch Nails. “I was an early adopter,” he says, although early software synths were not always up to par. “Some of the first virtual synths didn’t sound all that wonderful and weren’t necessarily all that convenient to operate. But I knew that wasn’t going to last forever.”

Having worked as a programmer with TV composer Cameron Allan (The Equalizer) prior to NIN, Clouser has first-hand experience with the relative benefits of plug-ins. “Our sonic palette was limited by the hardware we had on hand and the logistics involved, such as the number of mixer inputs we’d need. It was very ‘iron intensive.’ At one point we spent $16,000 just on analog patch cables and wiring up a mixer.”

Prolific TV score composer W.G. Snuffy Walden (The West Wing, Huff) also notes the cost effectiveness of soft synths. “It used to be that you had to have a 3/4-million-dollar facility. But I haven’t turned my 24-track on in three or four years. It’s all Pro Tools and software–which makes it really affordable for the newer guys coming up.”

Film composer Paul Haslinger (Underworld, Blue Crush), a former member of European electronic music pioneers Tangerine Dream, sees some parallels between software and hardware synths. “With hardware you had passive units that were just sitting there with a stock of sounds and you had active units, which were the ones you wanted to tweak. I see the same thing in software. I have some [Tascam] GigaStudios sitting here that are basically loaded-up with orchestral sounds. The active plug-ins sit in my main system in direct reach.”

Another composer working in film, Alex Wurman (March of the Penguins, Anchorman), agrees. “GigaStudios are very useful for the orchestral stuff. Anything synth-y sounding, and all my piano stuff, comes from virtual instruments.”

Indeed, virtual instruments offer almost limitless potential, which poses a problem for anyone up against a deadline. Writing for five TV shows this coming season, Walden has to work so fast that there’s little time to experiment with each new virtual instrument. “Each one has its own sound, and I try and use that for something to go to quickly. I’ll make some slight parameter changes. If something is released and it’s interesting I’ll get it, whether it’s [FXpansion’s] BFD or whatever, and really use it, but just for a short time.”

The problem, says Walden, is that presets can get overused. “For the last couple of years you’d hear the same [Spectrasonics] Stylus or Atmosphere sounds over and over again. I’ve heard a lot of the same stuff come up on different shows, and I could almost pinpoint the five patches I’m hearing.”

Wurman, who writes true hybrid scores that merge virtual and real instrumentation yet remain rooted in traditional music, is in a similar position. “I write pretty quickly, and most of the time I don’t really program the sounds too much, and I don’t have guys programming for me. I rely on the harmonies and polyrhythms and melodies to make my sound. But a slight tweak on the filter, or even automating that, is so useful.”

Everybody has a shortlist of favorite soft synths. “I use [Spectrasonics] Atmosphere and [Native Instruments] Absynth,” reports Walden, who works on the Digital Performer platform, “and we use Kontakt for a lot of samples. We’re also using the new Stylus RMX–I have years of loops that I’ve built, so now I’ll be able to use them again.”

Interestingly, some composers favor the soft synth and sampling programs that came with their sequencing packages over third party plug-ins. “The last score I did [Penguins] was a package deal so I was trying to be pragmatic, and it became a hybrid score,” says Wurman. “The saving grace was a synth that came with Logic 7 called the EFM, which is unbelievable.”

But Native Instruments’ and Spectrasonics plug-ins also get a workout, he continues, “I use Absynth, Atmosphere and Pro 5. I like to play melodies on the Pro 5 because it’s so expresive. And [Spectrasonic founder/developer] Eric Persing’s Stylus RMX is ridiculous. I realize now that simply by turning it on you’re more than halfway there. It’s the quintessential of this discussion: It’s all about the interface. That means you can get into the thing and make it your own really quickly.”

“I’m using Nuendo as my main sequencing platform,” reveals Haslinger. “When I start Nuendo the HALion sampler is already loaded. To just throw a sample in, tweak it, or tweak a loop, that’s my quick-edit plug-in.

“The next two on my list would be Stylus RMX and Atmosphere. Just because I love the sounds, and the flexibility that you get with RMX to load your Recycle sample libraries is just amazing.”

Haslinger is a big fan of small developers. “Very often small companies come out with very powerful little projects based on the fact that software is cheap to develop,” he considers, such as Canada’s Applied Acoustic Systems, who produce Tassman, Lounge Lizard, Ultra Analog and String Studio. “I find their products very fast to use, very good sounding and very different sounding.”

He continues, “There’s a company out of Scotland called Camel Audio. They’ve done a plug-in for years called CamelPhat, which I really like the sound of and keep using a lot. There’s also a small company out of North Carolina called Elemental Audio, and I pretty much use every single piece they put out–and in vast quantities! Their EQs are so good I just don’t bother with any other EQ. They hardly use any CPU power and they just sound amazing.”

Clouser also works inside his Logic sequencer, with ESX24 and the included soft synths providing the basis of all that he does. “Their analog synths, the ES1 and ES2, I use quite a bit. I make a lot of use of their virtual organ, piano and clavinet, especially on a TV show like Las Vegas, which is big, fun, splashy music.”

A self-professed “former Native Instruments user,” he recommends that manufacturers be wary of putting too many barriers–such as user accounts and log-in passwords–in the way of busy working professionals, who not infrequently upgrade their computer systems or seek out the latest versions of their favorite software tools and run afoul of copy protection issues.

“I cannot make use of any product that does not offer hardware copy protection. If it has i-Lock then it works. So probably 99.98 percent of all the sounds that I’ve made come from the synths and instruments built into Logic, simply because they’re protected by the hardware dongle which protects the program.”

The benefits of virtual instruments–cost, quality, control–are undeniable, but, particularly for those film and TV composers who grew up during the era of analog synthesizers and keyboards, the user interface can leave something to be desired. Not all soft synths are ideally operated with a mouse, yet hardware interfaces are not always up to the task, either.

There’s the reliability question, too. “For me and my generation, hardware still has this allure that it’s going to work, no matter what,” says Paul Haslinger, a film composer who, until 1990, was a member of pioneering electronic band Tangerine Dream for five years. “There’s something about hardware, maybe psychological; it gives a sense of stability. So we keep a Virus or a Nord around because we know we can turn them on and they always sound the same and they always sound good.”

He continues, “It’s an unfortunate part of software development and integration that we should have had better real time controllers. I guess it’s not a big market, but I’ve seen the need for a long time for a high-quality, good controller with good faders and good knobs.”

“Everything I’ve tried feels cheap and uninviting, to me,” continues Haslinger, who continues to use the Peavey PC1600 for its tactile feel. He has a message for any manufacturer who cares to design and build a quality controller: “I’d buy five!”

Of course, it’s all a matter of personal preference. According to film composer Alex Wurman, “Some have an interface that it’s nice to be able to put your fingers on. I came across a very cool controller, the Evolution U-Control. It comes with these cool lay-plates that have the parameters on them that you can lay over the knobs. It came bundled with an upgrade to Ableton Live, but it also controls several of the Native Instrument instruments that I use.”

As Wurman observes, a mouse isn’t always the best interface. “It’s mostly being able to look at 25 parameters, and be able to move your fingers to them and to control several of them at the same time. At least two, such as cut-off and resonance; you have to have your hands on both of those at the same time or you could blow your speakers!”

Clouser agrees. “Operating a software synth with a mouse does not work. It’s all about how I can control this thing in real time in a fashion that I’m accustomed to, i.e. knobs.

So now the thing I’m addicted to are these two-octave keyboards with knobs. When I’m scoping the internet and looking around the NAMM Show, that’s what I’m looking for–newer, better, fancier means of controlling the soft synths.”

He elaborates, “The Novation stuff is pretty fantastic, some of the best, when it comes to those remote front panels. I’ve bought just about every little keyboard with knobs on it but the Novations are the only ones in use in my room. The X-Station’s quasi-normal front panel layout is the most effective tool right now for editing a synthesizer.”

But the lack of full two-way communication, with the possibility for each control to include an LCD readout, is a major drawback, according to Clouser. “If they would add the ability to display every parameter under each and every button–no paper templates–I’d pay any price. Of course, it’s market driven and what we’re seeing are control surfaces under $500. That leaves the top-end guys, who don’t care if it costs $500 or $1,500–they just want it to work.”

Known for his encyclopedic knowledge of both hardware and software synthesizers, Clouser has some potentially valuable advice for manufacturers. Digidesign’s ICON, he points out, is a hardware controller that includes several panels with a single, dedicated purpose, such as controlling an EQ or compressor, rather than a generic panel for any purpose. “What if Digidesign’s ICON had a keyboard in it, something that looked like a synthesizer but was an ICON-style front panel for editing all manner of soft instruments? Something like that would be a big step in the right direction.”

He considers, “Manufacturers are unsure that there might be a market for higher priced control surfaces, and there’s a substantial investment in tooling the thing up and putting one on the floor at the NAMM show, so maybe that’s why we see a lot of sub-$500 controllers and none over $1,000.”

Any such technological advances, he believes, will come as a result of demand from the top: “It’ll be driven from the higher end of the post industry, and the guys who are using those gigantic Pro Tools rigs on the dub stage. It’ll be driven not from the rock n roll side but the post side, and it’s going to trickle down to the MI side. We’re on the cusp of that, I think.”